Winning Techniques and Strategies to Stay Tough in the Clutch

Looking for ways to help your players reach their potential during high pressure situations? Read on as renowned sport performance expert Chris Stankovich reveals proven techniques and strategies to stay tough and deliver in the clutch.

Tips During the Game

While it’s certainly most important for players to think about game strategies, plays, and the x’s and o’s, there’s a number of things you can do to help with mental toughness. Read on to learn about sure-fire ways to help kids reach their potential just by knowing a few tricks of the trade — key techniques so your players stay calm, cool and collected, and have that athletic confidence needed to have success in sports.

Arousal Regulation

Arousal is defined as human energy. Think of it along a continuum. On one end would be low arousal state, like when you are at home sitting in a recliner. This is when your focus is wide.

A high arousal state would be defined as any kind of panic situation, emergencies, or situations when you are frantic. Your focus is very narrow and not wide and this causes a lot of anxiety.

Therefore, the key to performance is to moderate that arousal level. When student athletes have very low arousal, this is when you want them to pick it up. In a high arousal state, it’s like game situations when the pressure is on.

The ultimate goal is to get players into an optimal arousal zone – -AKA “The Zone.”

Techniques to Get Into “The Zone”

It’s key to understand that arousal will vary. As you are coaching kids in the game, remind them about specific skills they can use during games they can execute that will help and provide maximum results.

1) Teach kids the importance of breathing. Teach kids to bring oxygen to their diaphragm. Our rib cage constricts our lungs, so we are able to bring in more oxygen into our stomachs. So teaching kids that in moments of panic, they want to learn the importance of taking two or three deep breaths into the stomach, holding for a few seconds, and then releasing. It quickly brings your arousal level down and helps center an athlete.

2) Tense/relax technique. When feeling nervous, focus on one muscle group at a time. The hands are a good place to start. Tighten your fists a few seconds, release, again, and then release again. This shakes out anxiety and puts the focus back on the athlete and not on the crowd or other factors. This is great for pre-game or stretching. You can even go through each muscle group, just do it one at a time.

3) Cue word. Pick a phrase that your players are comfortable with. If you see a kid nervous, remind them to think about that cue word. Pick the right places and moments to use this.

4) Imagery. During a timeout, remind kids to think of a good place, a past moment, and put your mind back into a good, positive emotionally charged place where they feel good. This is where they can go back and draw on an experience in which they were successful.

*Remember, while this is quick and easy to implement, the key is to make sure your players do them.


Think about teaching kids the importance of resiliency and developing a bounce back technique/strategy. This is something unique to each athlete that allows them to get their thinking back where it is supposed to be and back to a positive place.

Often you will see as a coach when players have a couple bad plays and the wheels fall off. You can tell they are losing it out there and you want to help them get their head back in the game and get back to that optimal level again.

Resiliency Goal: Pair something physical players do with a thought in their mind. It allows them to change their momentum, even if they are having a bad quarter, half, or game. This will allow them to stop that and get back in the game.

Ideas: Teach kids something simple like pinching grass and letting it go in the wind, symbolic for letting that play go. Another idea is during a timeout, have the athlete untie and retie their shoelaces.

Here, you are physically doing something to change momentum but also have that paired with, “Let’s get my head back in the game.” Normalize this. Teach kids that sometimes things will not go your way. So instead of letting the wheels come off, do something that will help stop that momentum and turn them back into your favor and a positive direction.

Tip: This should only be used in key situations. Don’t use the techniques every few minutes. Use it only when necessary.

The previous clips can be seen on Championship Productions’ DVD “Winning the Mental Moments: Developing Team Toughness in the Clutch.” To check out more performance training videos, check out our extensive video library.

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