Sports Coach Psychology Tips: How to Stay Calm as a Coach in Big Matches

Sports Coach Psychology Tips How to Stay Calm as a Coach in Big Matches

Sports Coach Psychology Tips: How to Stay Calm as a Coach in Big Matches

Is coaching big games similar to riding a rollercoaster?

If you watch the World Cup as it gets to the latter stages you’ll likely hear the coaches and managers talk a lot about dealing with pressure, about having confidence and belief in their decisions, controlling their emotions and so on….

When coaching, 1000s of coaches ply their trade at different levels; club, county, regional, national and international.  When we think of the World Cup, it’s the holy grail for most coaches.  They put in countless hours, days, weeks, months and years of hard work to get the opportunity to coach their country.  When they get there, everyone has an opinion, everyone knows best and every decision that they make is often shot down.  Only the really mentally tough coaches, go on to excel and thrive in such a role.  Let’s consider the World Cup, it comes around every four years, and to some coaches they may only ever get one opportunity at such a big tournament.  As a result, coaching and managing in the world cup can trigger a huge amount of pressure.

Do you find coaching in big matches or tournaments equals more pressure for you?

Why is that? Well it is usually because you are guilty of placing yourself under too much pressure.  You judge the level of match or tournament and place strict demands and expectations on yourself, your staff and team.  It’s likely that you go into what I call “judgement mode” often comparing yourself against other coaches or teams.  You may even tell yourself that your team is here to win and that mistakes are not acceptable.

Expectations create a lot of pressure

When you are coaching in big tournaments, just like the World Cup, these types of expectations are not irrational.  After all, that’s why you’re there, that’s why you’ve put in hours and hours of preparation.  You desperately want your team to win.  However, it is where you place your FOCUS that is key.  Focusing on your expectations is a sure way for you to make some bad decisions or lose control of yourself and your emotions.  There is a likelihood that you will feel the need for the team to perform perfectly.  This is where the problems can begin…

You hear many athletes say their greatest performances are when they perform free of expectation.  How do they do that?  By letting go of expectations.  Which can be very difficult if a coach continues to communicate about the need to win.  Our expectations are shaped over years and years of experiences and often from conversations with other people (management, support staff, our coaches, parents, friends and family, rivals).  It’s a tricky one to eliminate completely however being aware of your expectations that you place on yourself and others is key.

How can I check my expectations as a coach?  Here is a starting point – look to complete the following 5 statements and fill in the gaps:

  1. In the next big match I expect the team to …………….
  2. In the next tournament ……………… (Eg, The World Cup) I expect the players to ………….
  3. When the players perform I expect the physio to ……………
  4. In training I expect the captain to ………………
  5. On penalties I expect ……….

Now check these expectations, perhaps show them to a colleague or friend.  Do you find that these expectations increase pressure on yourself? And perhaps provoke emotional responses? Why is that?

Strict expectations are where many coaches go wrong and they increase the stress levels and pressure on themselves.  Coaches who go into matches feeling added pressure should check to see if they answer any of the statements above with result based or outcome-based responses. 

If that’s the case this is likely to be one of the big reasons why you feel added pressure.

Now that you’re aware of this I’d recommend that you direct your focus to the present moment. 

If I were supporting you, we’d be having helpful conversations, so that you go on to replace your expectations with mini-goals.  For example, let’s say in answer to statement 2, you said “In the next tournament, the World Cup, I expect the team to get to the semi-finals.”

We’d then discuss what success would look like.  Where you may say: “The team are aggressive and on the front foot when they are in possession of the ball.  Out of possession they will work extremely hard, pressing when the opportunity arises.  Our young players will take responsibility and look to boss games.  We all support and encourage each other no matter what challenges we come across.  We never give up and try till the bitter end.”

We’d then have some choices to make.  We’d have options to set mini-goals for individuals matches, training sessions or for tournament as a whole.  For example.



The team are aggressive and on the front foot when they are in possession of the ball.

Rate team out of 10 for how aggressive and on the front foot when they were in possession of the ball.

Out of possession they will work extremely hard, pressing when the opportunity arises.

Rate team out of 10 for when they were out of possession, I relation to how hard they worked.

We all support and encourage each other no matter what challenges we come across.

Rate the group out of 10 for how supportive and encouraging they were to each other.

I’d hope that you agree, these mini-goals will likely feel much lighter than the “We must win the world cup” expectation.  They should help you and your coaching team focus on smaller cues and ingredients which are likely to make up excellent performances. 

Feel free to continue to focus on the outcome, or results if you want to continue being indecisive or if you prefer to coach with your emotions yo-yoing up and down.  Though this approach is much better and can help hugely you and your players.

Many coaches can be exhausted after big matches and tournaments where their nerves are shredded, they’ve had many conversations which have been emotional and difficult leaving players out, and added to this they’ve often had difficulty sleeping for a period and had to contend with managing a rapid heart-rate and sweaty palms!  As a result, it can be very distressing for everyone involved and mean that a lot of the time that you spend on preparation can be wasted. 

However, it doesn’t have to that way if you take some time to:

  1. Dig deep into what you expect from yourself and others.
  2. Set mini-goals that free you and your team up.
  3. Focus on what you can control.

If you’d like to learn more about how we could help you and your team why not get in touch.  We are passionate about helping coaches get maximum enjoyment from their coaching and setting their teams up so that they can perform freely.   

You can also join our online community – THE SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY HUB – for regular Sports Psychology tips, podcasts, motivation and support.

David Charlton Sports Psychologist

Best Wishes 

David Charlton

Online Sports Psychologist who supports Coaches around the world from Colorado to Cornwall, Dublin to Dubai, Abu Dhabi to Adelaide, using ONLINE Video Conferencing.    

Managing Director – Inspiring Sporting Excellence, Host of Demystifying Mental Toughness Podcast and Founder of The Sports Psychology Hub.  With over a decades’ experience supporting athletes, coaches, parents and teams to achieve their goals, faster.  

T: +44 7734 697769

E: [email protected]

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