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Training Under Pressure

The article was provided by Training-Conditioning

One of the toughest things for high school athletes to master is learning how to perform when the pressure is on. Sometimes they struggle with it simply because they are not used to experiencing it. Often the highest stakes come toward the end of the season and by the time a player finds himself in that big game, it’s too late to prepare for it.

Players need to have experience performing in those kinds of situations if they are going to succeed. That’s why many coaches look for creative ways to help their players acclimate to pressure.

The most obvious method involves creating high pressure situations at practice. But actually doing so is not easy. It takes inventive thinking to get players to feel like the stakes are high during a scrimmage or a drill.

Some coaches have found that adding an element of competition is an effective way to raise the stakes and create game-like pressure. “A lot of times, guys want to beat their teammates more than anybody else,” says Adam Moseley, Head Baseball Coach at Hoover (Ala.) High School. “Pride is on the line and they are under pressure to win, whatever the competition of the drill might be.”

Along the same lines, Steve Trimper, Head Baseball Coach at Stetson University, encourages his team to train at full intensity by offering rewards for those who practice the hardest and win drills. “There is something at stake at every practice,” he says. “It might be a t-shirt for the winners or the losers having to clean the clubhouse. Once they learn to compete with each other, they can move on to competing with an opponent.”

Like many coaches in the Midwest, Kenny Linn, Head Baseball Coach at Tallmadge (Ohio) High School, knows his team is likely to spend more time practicing inside than on an actual diamond. This can provide further challenges to creating a competitive, high-stakes environment. But Linn has come up with a unique way to raise the ante during what could otherwise be boring and repetitive practices.

“Sometimes, we’ll add a little stress during our drills or modified scrimmages by letting our guys harass each other a bit,” he says. “For example, in a small Wiffle ball game where hitters are trying to work on staying back on off-speed pitches and hitting the ball the opposite way, the other team is allowed to run their mouths at the hitter—within reason—to create some pressure. Nobody’s allowed to disrespect anybody, but they’re encouraged to make a lot of noise and get under each other’s skin a little bit.”

Often coaches will create specific situations in their scrimmages to simulate game-time pressure, such as telling the pitcher that the bases are loaded with no outs or telling a batter that there are two outs in the last inning with a man on second. To make this more realistic, some coaches will even have runners stand on the bases. This is what Dr. Patrick Cohn, Baseball Psychology Expert and founder of Peak Performance Sports, calls “specificity training,” and it plays an important role in preparing players for pressure situations.

“Specificity training means putting athletes in pressure situations in their scrimmages and doing what are called pressure sets,” Cohn says. “Anytime you can have scrimmage situations where a lot of people are watching, that’s a bonus, because the players learn how to perform when others are evaluating them.”

However, trying to pour on the pressure during practice only goes so far—players still know it’s only practice. So Linn prepares his athletes for post-season pressure by challenging them with tough opponents from the start. Every year, he stacks his schedule with games against top teams in the area, and in recent seasons, he has also been scheduling games at major venues in front of large crowds.

“Filling our schedule with the best possible competition challenges our guys to be better everyday. And playing in bigger stadiums like Canal Park in Akron and Schoonover Stadium at Kent State University gives us the opportunity to compete in big-time environments,” Linn says. “More than anything, it’s about constantly putting our players in stressful situations so they learn how to handle those moments.”

Scott Berry, Head Coach at the University of Southern Mississippi, takes a similar approach by making sure his team treats every game as a big game. “We try to instill in our guys that no game is more important than the one we’re playing,” says Berry. “You have to establish from the very beginning of the season how important every play is, no matter who the opponent is or what’s at stake. That way, when you get to the postseason, the players are accustomed to performing under pressure. The fact that it might be a playoff game doesn’t matter because that game is no more important than any of the ones before it.”