Part two: Stress – footballer’s friend, foe or depends?

words by Tackle Your Feelings, Monday 17 August 2020

Words by TYF Program Psychologist Luke Jankie

Part two of two

In sports we often talk about clutch moments – breaking the tackle in traffic, lifting intensity in the fourth quarter or kicking the goal after the siren.

While some players revel in that opportunity, others find the stress overwhelming to the point where they can’t perform at their best. But, why are some situations motivating, and others overwhelming?

Looking to psychology theory, we’re tackling the issue!


The siren has sounded, the ball is in your hand, and your team is down by less than a goal. You’re 35m out, straight in front, about to undertake what would normally be considered a routine set shot for goal.

But, under the circumstances, the pressure makes this particular kicking exercise seem dramatically different.

As we learned in the previous edition of this blog, during stressful experiences our body can activate a stress response that serves as a survival mechanism to protect us from immediate threats.

During stressful experiences, in addition to physiological changes, there is also a shift in the motivational states that guide our behaviour as well.

Popular motivation theory suggests that there are four pairs of opposing motivations in our minds, each which express a different value or approach to a situation. For example, one of the motivational pairs is the ‘Serious/Playful domain’ which suggests that our behaviour will either be determined by our motivation to/for achievement/future goals (serious) or our enjoyment for the moment (playful). The other three motivational pairs relate to: the way we interact with rules (conforming vs. rebelling), transactions (power and control vs. care and compassion), and relationships (self-interests vs. interests of others).

While most people typically have a dominating motivation within each domain, there are factors that can still trigger a shift between the pairs. The three key factors influencing shifts are:

1) Environmental situations (inclement weather);

2) Frustration with your needs not being met (basic skill errors) and;

3) Experiencing a satisfaction beyond the point you want/need (over watching AFL during the ‘Footy Festival’).

In terms of our set shot scenario (an environmental situation), an example of a change in motivational states could be a shift from emphasizing the enjoying of the game (playful) to securing success and achieving the win (serious).

In breaking down the after-the-siren set shot, it’s probably becoming a little clearer as to why the task may appear to be more difficult than it does during training.

In addition to the physical changes associated with the stress response (Fight-Flight-Freeze), there are significant changes in the motivations that guide our behaviours as well.

But, just because there appears to be a lot going on, doesn’t mean the task is beyond our capacity. There are a number of strategies that we can deploy to transform our stress into something more manageable or even motivating, as opposed to letting it become overwhelming.

One really helpful strategy to manage stress is in our interpretive power – our ability to tap into more accurate and constructive styles of thinking.

During moments of stress, sometimes the task at hand can seem more difficult than it is. All of a sudden the result of a simple set shot feels like it defines our success, our value as a player or as a coach – all of which can unsettle our capacity to tackle the actual task we’re required to do. Yet, in actual fact despite the added pressure, the actual skill execution has remained relatively unchanged – It’s still just a single straight kick from 35 metres out in front.

So, if we are able to ground ourselves, redefining the moment by separating the context from the task, we may start to feel a little calmer and better equipped to manage the situation. The key here is to really accurately break down what is required of us.

Another helpful behaviour that can reduce stress comes from deliberate rehearsal and the establishment of a routine. While motivations may start to wain in the face of pressure, the momentum that is generated by following a sound routine can help propel players forward.

Practically speaking, this could involve developing a specific step-wise goal kicking routine, and practicing it at training under match like conditions (e.g. under fatigue) – think Quinten Lynch tucking his glove into his shorts, or Ben Brown’s uniquely long run up.

While the pressure might be high in some situations, deliberately going through the motions and following a specific set of actions can help kick-start the process and help you bypass some of the external distractions and pressures (because you’ll be too busy counting your steps to even notice!).

So next time you find yourself in a crunch-time moment in the coach’s box or on the sporting field, take note of the way you are interpreting the situation, and consider how you might be more constructively focussed. Ask yourself what is actually required of you, as opposed to fixating on the potential stakes at play.

And, don’t forget to lean into your routine – it doesn’t matter how strange it may look (like Matthew Lloyd’s grass throwing under the roof at Marvel Stadium), it’s all about building momentum!

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Note: While there are strategies to help manage and transform stress into motivation and more productive outcomes, it is worth noting that everybody’s experiences with stress is different. While research speaks to the power of helpful thinking and building momentum through routine, sometimes more involved work might be necessary (such as therapy).

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