How to build mental toughness for high-pressure situations

By Craig Sigl | Posted 2/20/2018

Tom Brady. Aaron Rodgers. Drew Brees. Russell Wilson.

What do these NFL greats have in common? They're all clutch players who've come through under pressure more than most, especially with the game on the line.

It’s not just quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers who deal with pressure and deserve the “clutch player” moniker. Every player on a football team has the potential to break down under pressure at the end of the game and cause the team to lose, or do exactly what it takes to win.

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You just don’t hear much about a clutch block by a lineman that gave the quarterback extra time to make that big play. You don’t hear about the linebacker who did his job or covered his receiver to keep him from being wide open in the clutch.

Because pressure exists at all football positions, all football players should learn how to deal with pressure situations. It’s going to happen to you if you play the game.

What makes athletes great under pressure is they've learned strategies to manage that pressure, and you can learn them too. Mental skills are learnable, just like physical skills.

Here’s one strategy

The last time you had a pressure situation, did a thought come across your mind about what would happen if you didn't come through? How bad it would be? The disappointment, maybe the loss of respect from coaches, teammates and parents?

Every time you entertain those thoughts, you're increasing the likelihood of them happening by programming your mind.

What you need to do instead is imagine yourself in the typical pressure situations for your position, hundreds of times in advance of the reality, and imagine being successful in those specific circumstances.

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Winners win in advance. Now, this may not be a huge new learning for you, but most athletes don’t do this one thing that really makes this work.

You need to prepare for and practice exactly what you'll think at the moment of needing to perform under pressure. For example, a player could repeat over and over:

“I’m a machine, just like practice, focus and execute the fundamentals.”

You have to give your mind something to do or you might leave it wide open to destructive thinking. This generates fear and interferes with your ability to perform. Crowd out the destruction by directing your thoughts, and practice this thinking before it ever happens.

By the time you get to an actual pressure situation in game time, you'll automatically think the way you've prepared and your mind won’t trip you up. Instead, it'll support you. Your body follows your mind. Use it.

Repeat to yourself a dozen times after this video: “I am a clutch player.”

Craig Sigl’s work with youth athletes has been featured on NBC TV and ESPN. For a plentiful archive of free training and guided visualization tips to help young athletes perform under pressure, visit

This is an updated version of a blog that originally posted Feb. 18, 2015.