Teaching ABC's of Pressure Situations

October 30, 2013

By Eric Martin
MSU Institute for the Study of Youth Sports

Coaches have seen the signs: Athletes having too much or not enough energy prior to a game, quickening breathing, sweating more than usual, being unable to focus on important details, and having their minds wander from the present to “what if” scenarios and past mistakes. 

Athletes deal with pressure in many ways. Although some handle it well, many do not have the tools to perform to their full abilities in these situations. Most athletes place a high importance on succeeding in sport, and when athletes reach regional, district, or state championships, the pressure they feel may become overwhelming.

How athletes handle this increased pressure can often mean the difference between winning and losing. Therefore, helping athletes deal with it is something coaches should consider prior to athletes encountering these high-stakes situations.

Unfortunately, there is no magic elixir for helping your athletes work under pressure. But if these ABC’s of pressure situations are followed, your athletes will be much better equipped to cope, and the chances of their performance levels dropping significantly will be reduced. 

1. Act the Part         

How you as coaches act influences your athletes. For better or worse, athletes notice your emotions in response to these situations and take cues from how you handle pressure.

You are a demand on your players’ attention – you can add or reduce your players’ perceived stress by how you act. Understanding the demand you place on players requires self-awareness. How do you respond when a key call goes against you? Do you have nervous habits that athletes may notice? What messages are you providing to your athletes – both verbally and non-verbally? Athletes pick up on these non-verbal cues, so you must be aware of how you respond to these situations.

It is important to remember emotions are not always negative – rather acting differently than normal can be a signal to your athletes that you are stressed. Strive to be consistent in your actions – whether you are coaching during a preseason match or championship contest. These situations are stressful for you too, but you need to be the constant your athletes look to for stability. 

2. Breathing – Remember to do it

It seems like a simple thing, but when athletes’ emotions are running high, they forget how to breathe – or, at least, forget how to breathe properly. Worse, they often think they are breathing normally but don’t notice breaths are becoming shorter and shallower. Teaching athletes to breathe properly when not in pressure situations will help them have the tools to rely on when they encounter more intense scenarios. 

For proper breathing, athletes need to do so from the belly and not the chest. The pace of this breathing should be 6-2-7; that is, have athletes take a deep breath from the abdomen for six seconds, hold for two seconds, and then finally slowly exhale completely for seven seconds. This breathing strategy is ideal for pregame situations to quiet nerves and help athletes get ready to play, but a condensed version (3-2-3) can also be used for quick breaks in the action like a timeout or court change.

3. Control the controllables

During times of high pressure, athletes sometimes feel they do not have control over their own performances. It is important to help athletes focus on things they can control and not worry about those that cannot be changed or are outside their influence. 

Instead of athletes dwelling on aspects that are out of their control like unusual game times for championship finals or a referee’s bad call, help them focus on completing their warm-up preparations and how they can respond to poor calls. Helping focus athletes’ attention on things they can control will help them better handle pressure situations and leave them feeling less helpless

Athletes’ emotions are typically out of their control, but how they view them and respond to these emotions are under their control. Author and preacher Charles R. Swindoll said, “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it!” Be sure your athletes know how to respond when difficult situations arise. 

Conclusion: Fearlessness is an assembly

Not all athletes react to pressure situations in the same manner, but all athletes can benefit from these simple suggestions. Remember to ACT THE PART of how you want your athletes to act, teach your athletes proper BREATHING techniques, and help athletes focus on CONTROLLING THE CONTROLLABLES

Good preparation is the key to performance. Increase self-monitoring and give athletes the tools to succeed in pressure situations; they, in turn, can be in a better position to succeed. However, like any skills, they must be practiced accordingly, and one session will not solve all issues. Devote the time to train athletes in these skills, and when the need arises they will have them ready to use. 

Good luck this season!

Martin is a third-year doctoral student in the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. His research interests include athlete motivation and development of passion in youth, sport specialization, and coaches’ perspectives on working with the millennial athlete. He has led many sessions of the MHSAA Captains Leadership Clinic and consulted with junior high, high school, and collegiate athletes. If you have questions or comments, contact him at [email protected]

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

April 4, 2024

WYOMING – As the final buzzer sounded, it was all I could’ve imagined – and more.

West Michigan

In the weeks leading up to March 16 and the Division 4 championship game, I experienced every emotion possible as I envisioned what it would feel like to be an assistant coach on the bench at Michigan State’s Breslin Center as the Wyoming Tri-unity Christian boys basketball team achieved its ultimate goal.

In my first year as the junior varsity coach at Tri-unity, I had been on the varsity bench for a majority of the season, assisting legendary coach Mark Keeler and fellow assistants Brent Voorhees, Bob Przybysz and Mike Kaman.

I was there encouraging, motivating and supporting the varsity team. It was a role I embraced, and had become accustomed to over my almost 30 years coaching high school basketball.

I started coaching in 1995 as Jim Ringold gave me my first opportunity as the freshmen girls coach at Wyoming Kelloggsville High School. I would then coach Kelloggsville’s freshmen boys team for eight seasons, while also coaching the freshmen girls at Grandville High School. I would also coach the junior varsity teams at both schools.

I love coaching. I have a passion for it. I’ve always enjoyed getting the most out of my players while creating a bond between player and coach.

When girls basketball season moved from fall to winter joining the boys in 2007-08, I stayed at Grandville. I spent 21 seasons there before stepping down.

I still wanted to coach, and I heard that the Tri-unity junior varsity position was available. I had always respected and liked Keeler and was excited for the prospect of joining a perennial powerhouse.

I didn’t really know about Tri-unity growing up in the Wyoming Park school district. But as a young kid, I would rush home and eagerly await the afternoon delivery of the Grand Rapids Press. I would quickly find the sports page and read it from front to back, hoping one day to see my byline.

I began writing for the Press’ sports department in 1997. It was my dream job. And that’s also when I first started covering Tri-unity boys basketball.

I remember watching eventual NBA all-star Chris Kaman, along with Bryan Foltice and others play for this little Christian school and have unbridled success under Keeler.

MHSAA Tournament runs became the norm for the Defenders. They won their first Finals title in 1996, and they would claim four more over the next 26 years. They also had six runner-up finishes.

Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action.I was sitting on media row writing for MHSAA.com in 2022 when Brady Titus led Tri-unity to its fifth state championship.

I never thought that two years later I would be on the coaching staff as the Defenders pursued another one. But there I was.

I knew this year’s team had the potential to be special.

Tri-unity had returned four of its five starters from a year ago, after suffering a heart-breaking two-point loss to Munising in the Division 4 Final.

Eight seniors were on the roster. The team had a mix of talented guard play, senior leadership, size and depth. We had shooters and we played great defense, a trademark of Keeler’s teams.

This was the year, and that heaped lofty expectations on Keeler and the team. It was basically “state championship or bust.” Anything less would be considered a disappointment.

Keeler wanted it badly, and I knew the players did as well. I think they felt the pressure at times of living up to the expectations that had been set.

We had several lopsided wins, but also had a few tough losses to Division 2 and Division 3 teams – Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, Wyoming Lee, Grandville Covenant Christian and Schoolcraft – all talented teams that I think made us better despite falling short.

As the postseason started, there was anxiety and excitement.

We were one of the favorites, but it wouldn’t be easy. We would have to earn each of the seven victories needed to win it all.

First came a District title, but then we had to play a quality Fowler team in its home gym in the Regional Semifinal. This was a game we knew would be a challenge – and it was.

We led by only one at halftime after a 7-0 run to end the second quarter. The score was tied 33-33 in the fourth quarter before senior Lincoln Eerdmans made a key 3-pointer to spark our victory.

As we went through the handshake line, several Fowler players said, “Good luck in the Finals.”

Our defense played extremely well in the Regional Final and state Quarterfinal to secure our team another trip to the Breslin.

St. Ignace was our opponent in the Semifinal, and we had to face a senior guard who could do it all – Jonny Ingalls. He lived up to the hype. He was good, and we didn’t have any answer for him in the first half. We trailed by one, only to fall behind by seven late in the third quarter.

Was this the end? Were we going to fall one game short of our goal?

Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. We were down by five points in the fourth quarter, but junior guard Keaton Blanker, and others, rose to the occasion. We rallied to win a tight one, and now we were one win away from a Division 4 title.

The night before the championship game, we stayed at a hotel in East Lansing as we had the first game of the day at 10 a.m. We had a team dinner, and the players seemed relaxed and eager to close out the season the way they had intended.

There was one thing that worried me. We were playing Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. A team we had played in the second game of the season and defeated by 30 points.

Would we be overconfident? I had no idea. They were a different team now, but so were we. Anything could happen.

Keeler gave a spirited and emotional pregame speech. In last year’s loss to Munising, he felt like the team played not to lose, and this season his big thing was “I want to win.” He said it to every starter that Saturday morning during the final moments in the locker room before tipoff, asking all five individually to say it back – which they did, the first one quietly but followed by teammates replying louder and louder as everyone got fired up and “I want to win” rang through the locker room. I think it inspired all of us.

After a competitive first quarter, we started to find our rhythm and expanded the lead. We were ahead by double-digits at the half, and a state title was within our grasp. Senior Wesley Kaman buried a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the third quarter to give us a 20-point cushion. It was at that point I knew we were going to win.

All five starters reached double-figure scoring, led by Jordan VanKlompenberg with 19 points and Owen Rosendall with 14. That balance was intentional and a successful sign for our team all season.

The exhilaration of winning was intoxicating. I loved watching the boys celebrate something they had worked so hard to accomplish. I will never forget their faces. I looked to my right from my seat on the bench and watched them running onto the court, just wearing their joy. They were just elated.

I was so happy for Keeler, a devout Christian who is respected by so many people in high school basketball circles. I learned so much from him this season. The way he approaches each game, his competitiveness. He instills his strong faith in his players and understands that the game of basketball is a bridge to a higher purpose.

Keeler is the fourth-winningest coach in state boys basketball history with a record of 694-216, and will be the winningest active coach next winter as all-time leader Roy Johnston retired from Beaverton at the end of this season.

The tournament run was one of the best coaching experiences I have had, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of a state championship season.

Dean HolzwarthDean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) The Wyoming Tri-unity Christian bench, including the author (far right) and head coach Mark Keeler (middle), celebrate a 3-pointer late in the Defenders’ Division 4 championship win over Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. (Middle) Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action. (Below) Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)