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Pressure Training in Practice
by Marie Dalloway

Important competitions are stressful and nerve-wracking. How can athletes prepare for the pressure and distractions of these events, when practices are so much more routine than competitions? One answer is pressure training during practices.

Called pressure practice or intensity training, this strategy turns practice sessions into a training ground for handling pressure. Pressure practices develop the readiness and preparedness for competitions by training athletes under pressure. The following is an excerpt from a chapter on Pressure Training in Practice from Marie Dalloway's new book, Performing Under Pressure: Mental Strategies for Handling Pressure in Tennis.


Ideally, athletes need to be able to go beyond withstanding pressure. They should be able to perform at the top of their ability in pressure situations. One approach to training athletes for handling pressure involves examining training methods that produce high performance under extreme pressure. What can we learn from training for these environments? A training program that stands out in its effectiveness for training for precision and accuracy under conditions of pressure is Top Gun School training. The Top Gun School has extraordinary success in training navy jet fighter pilots for combat aviation.

In the late 1960's, American air force and navy fighter pilots were losing too many air battles in North Vietnam. For every two enemy planes shot down, the enemy downed one American plane. A small group of instructors from the Miramar, California, base were charged with correcting the problem.

Initially, their response was to a war emergency. Eventually, the work of the core group of instructors changed fighter training and tactics and led to the creation of the Top Gun fighter pilot school. Applying Top Gun teaching principles to the training of athletes helps to convert regular practice sessions into practices that develop top performance under pressure.

Frequent And Fast Feedback

Pilots receive frequent and fast feedback on their performance. Feedback comes during drills as well as following drills in the meetings that are referred to as debriefings.

Feedback given to pilots is specific and positive. In a Tomcat aircraft, the pilot sits in the front of the aircraft and a radio and weapons officer sits in the back. If the pilot makes an error in a landing attempt on an aircraft carrier, the radio and weapons officer does not criticize the pilot. He offers encouragement and helps the pilot accomplish his mission. The feedback given is designed to correct the mistake.

In debriefings following a mission, pilots receive immediate feedback on how well the instructor felt the pilots performed that particular mission. Feedback is discussed in an atmosphere of cooperation and team coherence. Everything is gone over carefully in terms of, "This is what was done well. This was not done so well. Here is what we need to work on."

In debriefings, mistakes are ironed out in a supportive atmosphere. The pilots compete against the fundamentals and the standards of combat aviation, not against each other. Debriefings allow pilots to recognize and discuss more effective reactions to scenarios. Once a pilot sees something that happened during a mission that can be improved upon and talks about it in the debriefing afterwards, the next time he encounters that situation, he performs much better.

The principles and methods used for training pilots for the pressures of combat aviation have been used with success with young athletes. Tom Emanski, president of a youth baseball school in Florida, has used methods based on Top Gun School training with outstanding success with the 12- to 16-year-old baseball players he coaches. Principles from the training of pilots for the extreme pressure of combat are used as guideposts for training players to perform at their best level in the face of whatever demands and pressures they encounter in competitions. These principles drive the training that produces pilots capable of meeting the extraordinary demands of perfect execution, mastery of the aircraft, and mastery of fear.

Tom Emanski adopts the concept of fast, frequent, and positive feedback to his coaching. Hitters are not criticized for their performance at bat. The coaches at Baseball World take the extra step of talking with parents to ensure that parents do not criticize their kids for their batting. Players receive abundant praise for being aggressive at bat and for taking swings. Emanski feels that the absence of negative criticism, similar to tactics used with the combat pilots, makes the young players aggressive and confident.

Players are thoroughly critiqued. Again parallel to methods used with pilots, mistakes are discussed in "debriefings," in a supportive atmosphere. Points are made about ways to improve what was done. Players' actions are held up to fundamentals of the game, with the emphasis on always correcting and improving performance.

Emphasis On The Basics

Top Gun teaching methods emphasize learning the basics very well. Emphasis on the basics means skill building from the simple to the complex, from low pressure to higher pressure, and from a slowed-down tempo to real-life rhythm.

Mike Barger, an instructor with the Top Gun School, identifies flawless performance of the basics as a cornerstone for the success of the Top Gun School. Barger describes the basics as the building blocks for the advanced tactics that are taught at the Top Gun School. He contends that if pilots can do the basics, they will be able to do the bigger, more advanced maneuvers.

Honing the basics plays a role in the mastery of fear. Top Gun pilot training focuses on making pilots so offensively oriented, and better equipped and better prepared, that the fear factor becomes negligible. The instructor instills the view that pilots need to go out and do the basics, just as they have been doing, and they will be fine.

Emanski capitalizes on this training principle of emphasizing the basics with the youth baseball players. Critical points in the swing, defense, pitching, and running are isolated. Then these basic areas are learned by systematic retraining of the young players.

For example, instruction on running to first base, involves learning five points (lower the left shoulder when approaching the bag, hit the inside corner of the first base, accelerate, etc.). Besides memorizing these points, the youths do running drills to first base for up to half an hour every day of practice. The running drills represent a method to teach a basic building block. The basic skill of running to first is practiced and drilled until players can perform the five points of running to first perfectly.

Emanski's emphasis on the fundamentals also involves a building of the basic skills from the simple to the complex. For example, drills for catching balls that fall between an infielder and an outfielder first involve one outfielder and one infielder. Through practices with a tennis ball hit in the air, players learn the "rules of engagement" for determining which player fields the ball and which player breaks off.

Once the fundamentals are learned well, the practice moves to the more complex procedure involving two infielders and two outfielders in fielding drills with fly balls hit among them. Emanski's school emphasizes the teaching of fundamentals, such as the basic skills of running and of defense, in a step-by-step approach with outstanding success. Perfecting the fundamentals and progressing systematically in a learning process from simple to complex characterize the instruction. These fundamentals can be applied to tennis, as well as other sports.

Importance Of Repetition

Another teaching concept of the Navy Fighter Weapons School, "Top Gun," involves the use of repetition. Constant training results in an automatic mode of action to a situation.

The repetition that is built into the training procedures pays off in the razor-sharp instincts and rapid-fire decision making that Top Gun pilots demonstrate. In briefings before a mission, the pilots and instructors go over what to expect repeatedly. Lt. Mike Barger contends that the more times the pilots think something through, the more comfortable they become with that situation and the more sure they are in their reaction.

The what ifs are discussed. What if this happens? What if that happens? A limited number of options can occur when a pilot's aircraft merges with another airplane. The verbal repetitions that occur in briefings of what to expect and the options to take begin to make the decision path automatic.

More review and repetition of experiences and responses are done in the debriefings that are held after the missions. They go over what they did and what they need to do to perform better the next time.

Sessions in flight simulators afford the opportunity to again review and practice combat maneuvers. The flight simulators are in a semi-circular dome structure. Projectors portray scenarios of enemy aircraft in combat with the training pilot.

Maneuvers are practiced in the live flying against live adversaries. In regular, daily flights, pilots go through simulations of combat situations.

A saturation of training through repetition occurs from mental reviews in briefings and debriefings, from practices in the flight simulator, and from the daily flying against live adversaries. Repetition may be the single best tool for becoming quicker and more proficient in specific skills. From the repetitions, pilots see the options and possible outcomes clearly for each scenario and can make quick, unequivocal decisions even under extreme pressure.

Emanski transfers this principle of repetition to his instruction with young baseball players. In a national championship, an outfielder fielded a drive and made a dead-on throw to home plate to stop the advancing runner who had been on second base. To execute this play under the pressure of a national championship requires constant and disciplined training. Emanski estimated that the fielder involved in this play had done this particular maneuver over 1000 times in the two years he practiced under Emanski.

Emanski contends that the constant practice and drills allow athletes to go into an automatic, reactionary mode like the jet fighter pilots. There is no room for a response of nerves. Players do what they have been trained to do because of countless hours of practicing these maneuvers in drills.

Training With Intensity

Training with intensity is another principle behind Top Gun School training methods. Intensity is built into the practices at the Top Gun School. Both the training pilots and the instructors take their jobs very seriously. They recognize the consequences of being unprepared or of making a wrong decision. Daily practice flights are done with an awareness that pilots' performances indicate whether they would come home alive or dead if the maneuvers were for real. Knowing that there is a chance that pilots can go out and not come back drives the intensity behind the practices and drills.

Emanski applies the concept of training with intensity to his instruction of baseball players. He refers to team members as "men on a mission." He uses the briefing format to set up the objectives for practices and a debriefing session to discuss and evaluate performances following practice drills.

Practices are held with the crispness of military drills. In briefings, at the start of practice sessions, specific objectives are identified as the focus for the session. These objectives are referred to as the training "targets." Emanski shows films of pilots performing combat maneuvers and landing on aircraft carriers. He relates the development of skills of combat pilots to skill building in baseball. Performance skills in running, fielding and other areas in baseball are held to high standards of performance and accuracy in ways that imitate the need for combat pilots to develop their high proficiency and precision in aviation. The end result of having flawless execution of the right response for pilots has the parallel of flawless execution for each play and situation in baseball.

Emanski creates practices with the feel and tone of intensity. Practice sessions are fast-moving; they demand focus and concentration, and they are tightly organized 90-minute periods of skills and drills.


In addition to adopting principles from training programs for high pressure and high performance, specific training exercises also assist athletes in whatever sport in developing their ability to perform under pressure. Athletes accelerate their learning to deal with pressure by being in pressure situations during practice. Each pressure practice exercise uses a different method to generate pressure on athletes. Three effective methods that help athletes gain practice and skill in dealing with pressure are One Shot, in which only a single shot or attempt is allowed; an Imagery Exercise, in which athletes imagine that a practice session is an important competition; and Scoring Methods, in which practice performances are scored and ranked.

One Shot

Ordinarily during practice sessions, particular shots are repeated numerous times in a drill. One Shot is a technique that creates pressure on the athlete by allowing only one attempt at the shot.

Players are told that there is only one try and no second chances to make a certain shot or play. In fact, the practice is set up so that there are no opportunities to re-do or correct the performance. Players know that they need to make their one chance count.

Certain conditions applied to the One Shot exercise enhance its effectiveness. By springing the exercise on athletes, players have to adjust immediately to the added intensity and pressure. Absence of prior warning imitates the sudden shifts in momentum in competitions and the big points that come up quickly without time for mental preparation.

One Shot tests athletes' ability to cope with pressure. Athletes benefit from having a discussion after the exercise in which players' reactions are examined. It is important that players recognize how they feel when they are under pressure and how their performance is affected by pressure. Once players see how they react under pressure, they can learn to improve their responses. Of particular importance is learning to develop the ability to create extra focus and intensity for critical plays.

For this type of pressure practice, coaches need to adjust to briefer practice segments that emphasize high quality. The time taken for the One Shot exercise may turn out to be similar to other drills if the discussion segment is added to the exercise.

Carrying out the One Shot exercise can be done with different shots and with variations in the set up for the shots. Players can have one serve attempt to pull out of a critical situation. Or, they can be given one try to hit a deep overhead, knowing that this one try needs to be a put-away to secure a point at a critical juncture. Another possibility is giving players one shot on a return of a second serve to their opponent. They need to make a decisive play on this return because the score is at match point for the opponent.


Imagery can be used to turn a regular practice session into a pressure practice. Visualizing that the practice is an important event intensifies the practice and puts pressure on the player. This is the Olympics! is one name for exercises that use graphic visualizations to produce a vivid sense of playing at a major event.

Numerous successful Olympic athletes attribute their success to imagery. Creating vivid imagery in training sessions allows the training session to become something more. Imagery can work to generate intensity and pressure and to inspire players to lift their performance to meet those conditions.

Young athletes across sports use visualization frequently as they practice. Athletes fantasize about running, cycling, or playing tennis with their hero. As a young athlete returns a low, fast backhand from the backboard, he imagines himself on a practice court before his match at Wimbledon. The young player, ignoring tired legs and breathlessness, listens to encouragement from "Michael Chang," or "Patrick Rafter," who stands at courtside giving his special charge instructions to hit out and to be aggressive and focused.

The young player pushes himself hard, not letting anything get by him without a supreme effort to make the return. He strains to execute each shot as perfectly and as powerfully as he can since he is playing for his hero.

High-quality practices accompanying a visualization about one's sports hero or about a championship setting are not uncommon. Using these types of visualizations produces a natural and effective form of visualization practice that increases the intensity and the performance level during practice.

Capitalizing on this natural inclination to imagine practices as important events, coaches or players themselves can create a variety of imagery exercises that increase the pressure experienced during practices. These imagery exercises are not confined to imagining Olympic events. Imagery can be used to create a match against an older sibling; a competition with a staunch rival; a match observed by an important agent or a scout from a prestigious college; a match played out in front of the hometown crowd; the finals for the NCAA.

How important an event is to an individual player determines the pressure generated when those circumstances and settings are created in the imagination. This is the Olympics! exercise gives players the experience of pressure from a range of imagined settings. Players have the chance to experience raising their game to meet the demands for the important moment.


Scoring performances in practice sessions is another pressure training method. Scoring and ranking athletes turns up the pressure and changes a regular practice into a pressure practice.

In the Top Gun School, a scoring method is used with the very complex task of landing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier. The process involves landing on the deck of the carrier at full throttle and having one of four wires snare the hook on the bottom of the plane. An individual rates each landing attempt on a Greenie Board, the recording system for rating aircraft carrier landings.

Tom Emanski transfers this concept of scoring performance to his coaching instruction of baseball players. He uses a hitting drill that he refers to as Greenie Board Batting Practice. Coaches grade players from zero to four points on each swing players take through a series of times at bat.

Every two weeks the scores recorded from the batting drills are posted so that each player knows exactly where he ranks in relation to the others. Players with the lowest scores receive extra drills. Rating players' batting performance, posting the results, and adding the consequence of additional drills increase the sense of pressure and make these practices ones that prepare players for pressure performances in competitions.

Creating pressure practices with scoring methods transfers easily to tennis. Coaches or players themselves can score serves on a rating system of 4, 3, 2, 1, or 0. To receive the highest score of 4 on a serve, players must hit a target zone in the service box. Descending scores correspond to areas increasingly farther away from the target, similar to the widening concentric circles used in certain archery or pistol-shooting exercises.

A second scoring practice drill is a 10-ball drill in which each of the 10 balls is fed to the player by the coach. Regardless of where the ball lands on the player's side, the player must return each ball to a marked target zone. Scores are based on the 4 to 0 rating system as in the first drill with 4 given as the highest score and 0 given for a miss. The other point scores relate to the distance the player's return lands from the target zone.

A third scoring exercise assists players in reducing their number of errors and serves as a pressure training practice. In this drill, two players play out points. One player serves for four consecutive points. The player serving must serve and volley. The score from 4 to 0 represents the number of points a player wins out of the four points. After four points are played, the other player becomes the server and serves for another four points.

These scoring drills, as well as the imagery exercises and the One Shot drill, assist players in dealing with pressure because they make players experience pressure during practice.


Pressure practices give players experience in responding to pressure points. Through pressure practices, players develop the mental and emotional control to handle competitive moments that are laden with consequences. Specifically:

  • Pressure practices hone the skills that it takes to perform well during those times when performance counts.

  • Pressure practices create an opportunity for players to experience how to handle pressure in a learning context.

  • Pressure practices help to demonstrate the importance of confidence for performing at the top of a player's ability.

  • Pressure practices help to eliminate those frustrating times when a player's performance falls far short of his ability due to faltering under pressure.

  • Intensity practices narrow the gap between the more routine and repetitive quality of practice sessions and the intense quality of competitions.

  • Pressure training during practice teaches coaches and players the importance of positive, corrective feedback.

Pressure practices dispel the myth that athletes either possess mental toughness or they do not possess this quality. The ability to play the big points with poise and aggressiveness is a learnable skill.

Marie Dalloway, a sport psychologist and author in Phoenix, Arizona, has written six books on mental training in sports. Tel (602) 274-1889, Fax (602) 274-0466. Web site: http://www.bookzone.com/optimal/.

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