As all athletes know, whether they are ten years old or twenty-five, shoot outs are many times the deciding factor of a very important game, and extremely nerve racking when it comes down to that final point.  In 2011, the women’s U.S. soccer team missed their first three shots in the shootout against Japan, who had not beaten the U.S. in the previous 26 matches between the two teams.  Even after hours and hours of practicing for the chance of a shoot out, and continually making those simple shots in other games under pressure, the U.S. women’s soccer team froze up, costing them a game. So my question is: what factors influence this sudden outcome for even the best players? Is it that they just did not practice enough? Do athletes simply get nervous from the pressure and freeze up?  Or is it all just in their heads to psych them out?

What coaches understand, but not always the players, is that talent and skill is not the only measure of a great player; you also have to include the mental part of the game as well.  Most of the mistakes athletes make during their game are mental mistakes that they sometimes cannot jump back from.   Each and every player may have their own distractions and contributions to what causes their mental focus to get off track, so it is very important that they get assessed individually.

However, in the instance of shoot outs, it has been noticed that many of the missed shots are stress related.  The stress caused by being in the position and under pressure of taking this one simple shot that all your teammates, coaches, family and fans are counting on you for, 50% of the time results in a shot over the cross bar, too wide left or right, or even straight at the goalie.  These missed shots have been found to be because of physical tension that the stress caused these shooters.  These results don’t only go for soccer though; hockey players, baseball, football and basketball players also crack under a great amount of pressure when it comes down to the last straw.

Physical tension is caused by the stress of the deciding shoot out, free throw, or no-hitter, or just the game against your rival. This results in your muscles in your body working against themselves, called “bracing”, causing athletes to fail to succeed at something they have done perfectly a million times before.  Athletes have to learn how to deal with this pressure and play around it. There are many techniques they may have never thought to do, but effectively work when under stress and the pressure of the game.

One approach that can be used by all athletes is the “pre-shot routine”, which has been proven to lessen the negative impact of pressure when approaching the ball to shoot.  This routine is to help you practice an approach to the shot on a consistent basis, so that in a pressure situation the athlete can focus on the routine and avoid being psyched out. Any routine must begin with the athlete centering themselves, and takes a great amount of practice to become effective. However, if mastered, a routine can be a great resource in a pressure situation.

Another successful technique is visualization. When you are getting ready in the locker room with your teammates, take a few minutes to visualize the game and what you would like to see happen during that specific game. Start by visualizing yourself scoring, making that interception, beating the opposing team, whatever it is that will help you get pumped up the most. This technique helps you stay positive and achieve those goals, no matter your role or position on your team.

A third mental preparation technique is to get mentally prepared by reviewing your opponents.  If you know the other teams players’ strengths, weaknesses, and the kind of game they play, it will begin to ease your mind and release some of the stress build-up.

Lastly, positive self-talk is a great relaxer for athletes during a game or competition.  Never think of a bad outcome of the game and what you hope not to happen.  Instead, think of the good plays you are going to make and winning.  If you use the “I can”, “I will” and phrases such as those in sentences to yourself and your teammates before and during the game, you are more likely to see that as an outcome than if you have a lot of negativity.

In conclusion, most athletes do not fail at the game they love, or make the mistakes they do on the field because of their lack of skill or practice, but because of stress and anxiety built up before and during the game.  Most coaches know and see this but do not know how to take the correct and appropriate steps to help their players overcome this.  Athletes growing up need to be aware of these mental factors and start to focus on their mental preparation and focus of the game just as much as their own personal skill level.