Performance pressure in elite football



Place: Aud A

Formal title

Stress, emotions, and coping in elite football players - A study of negative emotions, defensive self-presentation strategies, and their relationships to skill and performance level


Elite football is a context characterized by a high level of performance pressure; nurtured by players’ own ambitions as well as external expectations concerning their performance and development. Aspiring and professional players are therefore likely to experience emotional distress in relation to training and match activity in the sense that they want to, and it is expected of them to live up to a certain standard.

Previous research indicates that players use defensive self-presentational strategies to cope with emotional distress such as anxiety, shame, and guilt in response to performance pressure and performance errors. However, we know very little about how such distress and coping are related to players’ skill and performance level. Therefore, in the current thesis the aim was to investigate the links between emotional distress (anxiety, shame, and guilt), defensive self-presentational strategies (sandbagging and self-handicapping), skill and performance level in elite male football players. Sandbagging concerns presenting oneself as less competent or skillful than one really is, while self-handicapping concerns presenting oneself with a “handicap”, such as not having practiced much or being injured; so one may be perceived as competent and skillful despite potential failure. As private and public perceptions are highly related, another aim was to investigate how the use of such strategies were related to the accuracy of players self-perceived skill level.


The current project is grounded in the two national surveys “Tippeligaen 14-21” and “A-stall prosjektet”. All Norwegian Premier League and Second League clubs (32) participated in these projects. The current project is compromised by four studies. In study 1, the relationship between media exposure, expectations (competitive anxiety), sandbagging and performance level in elite youth football players (N = 681, mean age = 16.5) using questionnaires. In study 2, the relationship between shame/guilt, self-handicapping, and skill level was examined in elite youth football players (N = 589, mean age = 16.8) using questionnaires. In study 3, the relationship between accuracy in self-perceived skill level, defensive self-presentational strategies, competitive anxiety, and future performance level was examined in elite youth football players (N = 267, mean age = 17.6) using questionnaires and archive data. In study 4, six professional players (mean age = 25.33) were interviewed concerning how they coped with performance errors and how they worked on improving their weaknesses. 


A cross the different studies in the thesis, a main finding is that players are likely to experience emotional distress in the form of competitive anxiety, and shame; and that they use strategies such as sandbagging and self-handicapping to cope with this distress. Interestingly, these are tendencies that seem to mitigate with age and performance level. For example, in study 1 it was discovered that moderate levels of competitive anxiety and sandbagging in response to media exposure was a statistical effect particularly prominent in young players and showed an opposite trend in older players. This indicates that players that tend to respond this way to media exposure either drop out, become deselected, or become accustomed to media exposure, with age and experience. Either way, younger players on their pathway towards becoming professional players seem to be more sensitive to media exposure, than older professional players are.

However, this does not mean that adult professional players are insensitive to evaluation and high expectations. Specifically, in study 4 it was disclosed that being evaluated negatively during practice, and particularly during match activity, after making errors or displays of poor performances was stressful for adult professional players. They were likely to experience shame, which led them experience a desire to escape or hide. A desire most of them actually gave into by using hiding as a coping strategy in the sense that they avoided the ball or they practiced by themselves so no others would see the weaknesses of their skills. Interestingly, some of them was also able to use such stress to facilitate their subsequent performance and nurture their development by focusing on their tasks and developmental goals.     

One of the most interesting findings in the project was disclosed in study 3, concerning that youth elite players’ tendency to overestimate their skill level compared to their coaches’ estimates. This tendency was negatively related to players’ likelihood of playing national team matches the next upcoming two years. As the players that overestimated themselves to the largest extend did not report particularly high levels of emotional distress nor particularly frequent use of defensive self-presentational strategies, it thus seems unlikely that this overestimation tendency is a product of a classical Freudian defense mechanism. It seems more likely that it is a cognitive bias. It might for example be a case of the “Dunning-Kruger effect” which claims that people with a relative low skill level tend to overestimate themselves. That is because they do not have enough experience using the specific skill at solving a specific task at a high performance level, making their ability to identify their limitations with respect to different levels of successful task execution flawed.


Practical implications

The results of the current project imply that emotional distress is natural a part of a footballer’s life at the elite and professional level. Importantly, players need to learn to not shy away from the competitive and developmental demands when they experience emotional distress. For football coaches and sport psychologists, a first step in this regard would be to explain them the links between ambitions, expectations, emotional distress, coping strategies, skill and performance level. A second step would be to help them to develop and use functional strategies, such as focusing on, and evaluate themselves up against, controllable behaviors that increases the likelihood of development and success; like deliberate practice during practice activity, and role specific tasks during match activity. In cases of very high level of emotional distress mental skills training aiming at lowering symptoms of distress might also be appropriate.

Given that players tended to overestimate themselves, in comparison to their coach, implies that coaches should take this overestimation into account when providing players with feedback, with an aim at facilitating realistic self-perceptions in players.

For football clubs and organizations, the results of the project suggest that they should educate their coaches concerning the role of emotional distress and coping strategies in skill and performance development. The fact that an overestimated self-perceived skill level was negatively related to future performance level, highlights the importance of players being provided with the experience of playing at higher performance levels within their talent development system; so their self-perceptions are calibrated with respect to knowing the level of skill required in order to progress on through to the next performance level. Furthermore, the results encourage that players are provided with media training and that the media are mindful about how they portray players, in particular those who are young.