England’s captain Steph Houghton reacts to having a vital penalty saved in her team’s 2-1 World Cup semi-final defeat to the USA. EPA-EFE/Srdjan Suki

Women’s World Cup: choking under pressure is common – here’s how to avoid it

Pressure affects us all and sports performers are no different. Tennis players serve double faults, golfers miss short putts and football players miss penalty kicks when it really counts. Just over 80 minutes into the Women’s World Cup semi-final, the England Lionesses trailed USA 1-2 and team captain Steph Houghton had a penalty kick to try to level the score. She was unable to convert the opportunity.

In her own words Houghton “just didn’t get a good connection” and the kick was saved by the USA goalkeeper. But what was she thinking as she prepared for the penalty – was this a kick to level the scores or a kick not to lose the match? As captain, did she feel unusually self-conscious in that moment? Was she particularly focused on her technique, or was she simply unlucky?

Pressure matters. In Men’s World Cup penalty shoot-outs, more than 90% of kicks to win the shoot-out are scored – yet only 60% are successful when the player must score to keep the shoot-out alive.

Sport psychologists who study performance under pressure have shown that several things happen. First, when we are anxious we become more distracted, particularly by sources of threat. In penalty kicks the goalkeeper is the obvious threat to success and researchers have shown that 56% more time is spent looking at the goalkeeper in pressure kicks. To make matters worse, goalkeepers often try to distract the kicker – and they make more saves when they do so.

Secondly, the fluent and automatic feel of highly practised skills can unravel to the point where the players can look almost like novices. In most activities it pays to slow down to give yourself the mental space to think logically when anxious. But, paradoxically, once skills such as a golf swing or football kick are well-learned, it is best to perform them without thinking.

Some players are more prone to over-thinking than others. Do these statements describe you: “I’m aware of the way my mind works when I work through a problem” or “I get ‘worked up’ just thinking about things that have upset me in the past”? Researchers have shown that “yes” responses to these and similar statements are associated with skill failure and poor decision making under pressure.

Third, we tend to focus more on the outcome than what we need to do to achieve it. By its nature, pressure implies a performer is on the verge of achieving something important. Unsurprisingly, their thoughts turn more to the outcome – yet this is the very thing they can’t control, which itself becomes a source of anxiety.

Pressure kick: England rugby player Jonny Wilkinson had a ritual to slow himself down when facing pressure kicks. EPA/Kim Ludbrook

Fourth, pressure situations can be accompanied by a strong urge to avoid the situation. Multiple gold medal-winning Olympic rower Sir Steve Redgrave described in his autobiography A Golden Age that he frequently thought: “Why am I doing it? I don't’ want to be here. It’s absolutely horrible.” Avoidance can also be seen in the body language of players. In football shoot-outs, the players taking the penalties to prevent a loss are more likely to turn their backs on the goalkeeper after placing the ball and respond faster to the referee’s whistle. The urge to “get it over with” leaks into players’ actions.

How to thrive under pressure

Coaching staff, sport psychologists and teammates play an important part in preparing the players to perform well under pressure. How might they do this?

1. Encourage a ‘challenge’ mindset

Do players see pressure situations as a threat or a challenge? A team culture that embraces pressure and plans for it is critical. By practicing under pressure players become acclimatised to it, understand how it affects their thoughts, behaviours and emotions, and have the opportunity to learn and practice coping skills. Researchers have shown that basketball players who completed nine sessions of practice under pressure improved their free throw success from 73% to 78%.

2. Trust the process

And let the outcome take care of itself. By focusing on what we need to do to achieve an outcome, our thoughts turn to things that are more under our control. Simply asking “How?” can help switch focus to the things under your control.

Rather than “winning the World Cup”, players will be encouraged to focus on the game plan and their role within it across a range of scenarios.

3. Encourage clarity and certainty

According to players, a big source of stress in penalty shoot-outs is uncertainty about whether or not the coach will ask them to take a kick, and which of the five kicks they will be asked to take. Planning in advance for this eventuality is critical. The order in which players take kicks and their strategy, body language, pre-kick routine and use of deception and disguise are all part of effective preparation.

4. Keep it simple

We can keep fewer things in mind when under pressure so it’s important to have a simple, clear game plan. This applies to skill execution too. “Holistic” cue words that capture the essence of the skill, such as “smooth” or “reach” for the basketball free throw, have proved effective in preventing “paralysis by analysis”.

Pressure situations are synonymous with sport. As sport psychologists become integrated into more sport science support teams, we are helping athletes and organisations to embrace the challenge of how to thrive on the biggest of stages.