May 2005 • Revised August 2014


How do we learn to cope with stress? How do we nail that job interview, ace that exam or make that free throw. Stress and abounds in life yet little time is devoted to teaching how to handle pressure. In addition to healthy living and personal fitness, physical education classes and high school athletics can help students develop the mental focus needed to succeed in a stress-filled world.

The purpose of physical and health education (P.H.E.) courses in Ontario is to: “to provide learning experiences that will help students realize their potential in life (Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, 2000, p. 1).” Aside from the obvious fitness and health benefits, there are many reasons that students should continue to take P.H.E., though it is an elective class after Grade 9.

Benefits of Physical Activity

P.H.E. and high school athletics can enhance emotional control, the ability to handle stress, and teamwork skills. These cross-curricular skills, which are required to succeed in other subjects, are often overlooked in high school. Student-athletes do not become involved in P.H.E. and athletics because they are already experts; they participate to have fun, exercise, socialize, and get better.

For the seventy-six percent of high school students who participate in organized sport, sport can be a very positive experience (Guèvremont, Findlay, & Kohen, 2008, p. 67). Physically fit students possess better literacy and numeracy skills (Telford, Cunningham, Telford, & Abhayaratna, 2012, p. 51). Extra-curricular athletics can increase self-efficacy, self-control identification with school, all of which raise the academic performance and enjoyment of adolescents. The academic and social benefits continue throughout the senior years of high school and into university (Marsh, 1993, pp. 28-31).

Encouraging Participation

However, out of all of the middle school and Grade 9 students who play sports, the rate drops precipitously, especially among females and low-income students. For Canadians aged eighteen and nineteen, athletic participation rates have fallen twenty percent since 1992 (Berger, O’Reilly, Parent, Séguin, & Hernandez, 2008, p. 286). Many quit due to negative experiences as young athletes and lose the advantages that come with sport as a result.

It is incumbent on coaches on moderate sport experiences so that youth continue to practice, train and compete. Athletes at risk of dropping out of sport include late entry athletes, youth who are not as physically mature and players from families that do not participate much in sport. Early specialization and autocratic coaching can lead to burnout and leaving sport as well (Fraser-Thomas, Côté, & Deakin, 2008, p. 321).

Fifty percent of youth quit sport because they lose interest or for no particular reason (Ifredi, 2008, p. 66). Whether it is fun, physical fitness, challenge or socialization, coaches must find what makes athletics significant in order to engage adolescents. Being part of a programme delivered by conscientious coaches is a powerful motivator (Berger, O’Reilly, Parent, Séguin, & Hernandez, 2008, p. 298) so teachers and coaches should embrace their role in guiding student-athletes and serving as a catalyst for change.

Developing People: High school athletes need coaches who are good communicators and build meaningful relationships. These coaches cannot play favourites, act openly and honestly and serve as role models (Fraser-Thomas & Côté, 2009, p. 13). When Tracy McGrady entered the N.B.A., it was the first time that he felt that basketball wasn’t fun. He reached an impasse with then-Raptors coach Darrell Walker regarding work ethic and was buried on the bench during games and ignored during practices. When Butch Carter took over, he began to nurture McGrady, who reminded him of a high school player promoted to varsity before he was physically read.

Carter asked McGrady for one good hour of practice and used playing time as a carrot. Carter provided McGrady with his brother’s N.F.L. training regiment, tutored him using fame film and helped him develop his shot. As McGrady’s third season unfolded, he became an elite scorer and defender and gains in strength and quickness were evident. One good hour had become ninety good minutes and kept increasing (Palmer, 2001).

Setting Meaningful Goals

Goal setting is an important part of school, in the classroom and during co-curricular activities. The goals may involve a tricky subject or a challenging skill. Instructors might find it frustrating to light a fire under a student-athlete to inspire them. Encouraging the player to visualize the successful accomplishment of the goal may make mastery seem more realistic and reachable (Jensen, 2003, pp. 151-2).

When a goal is set but appears unattainable, the student-athlete will experience stress. Physical educators and coaches can help students learn how to set appropriate goals by ensuring that the expectations of a unit are congruent with the ability of the class. Challenges must be suitable for the level of development and achievable within each student-athlete’s zone of proximal development (Clinkenbeard, p. 197). Instructors can also guide the class about using affirmations and self-talk to remain focused and positive (Jensen, 2003, p. 42).

Mastery Goals: Those who pursue mastery goals are more likely to select challenging tasks, persist in the face of difficulty, make use of more sophisticated preparation strategies and retain a more positive attitude (Barron & Harackiewicz, 2001, p. 706). For Larry Bird, that goal was perfecting his shooting form when he was sidelined for a season with a broken ankle (Pearson, 2013).

To reinforce mastery goals, coaches should recognize incremental progress towards the goals (Chase, 2001, p. 47). Unqualified praise is powerful fuel for adolescents and should be the primary type of feedback (Stabeno, 2004, p. 81). However, judicious use of disappointment and mild anger by the teacher can be more effective than a display of pity or sympathy when motivating students who are not realizing their potential (Buchanan & Sparling, 1993, p. 225).

Aligning Goals: Coaches can help athletes by setting high standards and helping them reach meaningful goals (Fraser-Thomas & Côté, 2009, p. 12). When John Claipari became the coach at the University of Kentucky in 2009, he asked sophomore Patrick Patterson about his plans for the next year. Given the players – such as Eric Bledsoe, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins – arriving the following season, Calipari was uncertain about whether Patterson would accept a reduced role. Patterson told Calipari that he wished to return for his junior season so that he could play in the N.C.A.A. Tournament, graduate in three years and learn to play away from the basket.

Patterson had been coached to play near the basket as long as he played the game but he felt that he needed additional abilities in order to succeed in professionally, where he could not play inside as much. Once Calipari realized that their goals were compatible, he welcomed Patterson back and worked with him. The Wildcats made the Elite Eight, Patterson was a first round draft pick, he developed his perimeter skills and created a solid N.B.A. career for himself (Calipari, 2014, p. 147).

Promoting a Growth Mindset

Successful athletes possess a “growth” mindset, which enables them to recognize their mistakes and learn from them. Frustrated athletes possess a “fixed” mindset, believing that they are doomed to fail repeatedly. Adolescents are some of the biggest believers in the fixed mindset, feeling that it is not possible to improve in school, sport and life because their current stage of development is their destiny (Dweck, 2006, p. 57).

Students who receive feedback about their effort (process) instead of their abilities (outcome) are likely to remain more diligent and confident (Lehrer, 2010, p. 52). People can only do their best so players should be congratulated when they do their best, even if the outcome is less than desirable (Wooden, 1999, p. 2).

This can be crucial if a basketball player experiences a growth spurt early or develops co-ordination before their peers. We want those players to persevere if they face obstacles and we want those who were not blessed with athletic talent to continue to work hard. Sports and games allow coaches and parents to praise the effort of players and foster their work habits.

Coaches must encourage all team members to adopt a growth mindset, so they can contribute everything they need to attain athletic success. But they cannot control every aspect of a practice or a competition. Coaches should not control as much as they guide and the support network gained from extra-curricular activities (coaches, teachers, teammates, fans) should not only exist during the good times.

Making Good Decisions

Student-athletes constantly have to make decisions, such as whether to listen to a friend who may be a poor influence or how much to study for a test. When the players’ “fight or flight” response is triggered, decision-making suffers. Under stress, people do not think clearly. People may consider multiple options but do not carefully evaluate each choice.

A person who can make thoughtful and reasoned decisions at one moment may not do so under stress because they do not seek and weight relevant evidence (Baron, 2000, p. 215). Bobby Hurley Sr. spends the first few days of each season emphasizing poise for the at-risk players at St. Anthony’s, before introducing skill development (Wojnarowski, 2005). Teachers and coaches can aid student-athletes with their response to pressure.

Making successful decisions under pressure in sports will lead to handling other situations well. When a student can handle the intensity of athletics, with an elevated heart rate and in the presence of others, they can manage their emotions when making decisions under pressure elsewhere (Henley, Schweizer, de Gara, & Vetter, 2007, p. 2).

Handling Pressure

Rick Pitino, coach of the University of Louisville Cardinals, believes that pressure is a constant throughout life and that it is not a negative influence. Pitino believes that the root cause of stress, a negative influence, is a lack of preparedness or a lack of focus (Pitino & Reynolds, 1997, p. 167). Individuals with low athletic self-efficacy are more prone to anxiety and self-conscious behaviour in sporting settings (Gammage, Martin-Ginis, & Hall, 2004, p. 188).

Throughout the school system, little attention is paid to managing the pressure of an evaluation, performance, or major decision. This extends to post-secondary institutions where business students are given no training on how to make good decisions under pressure (Powers, 2005, p. 22).

Many good students who are intelligent and articulate have trouble remaining calm and focused. Successful emotional control on the court can lead to successful emotional control in the classroom. P.H.E. instructors and coaches have an advantage in that the physical nature of their domain contains intrinsic pressure, which can be controlled. When the chaos on the court is modified, situations can be created where students can succeed (Stabeno, 2004, p. 55).

Mindfulness: Mindfulness training for youth increases positive affect, emotional and cognitive regulation and self-control (Mendelson, Greenberg, Dariotis, Gould, Rhoades, & Leaf, 2010, p. 990). N.B.A. teams have incorporated many mindfulness practices, such as meditation, breath regulation and focusing inwards to improve performance under pressure (Mumford, 2012).

Building Confidence: The best coaches must balance belief in the skills of athletes – shown with words (feedback and acknowledgement) and actions (increased responsibilities) – with stimulating challenges (Fraser-Thomas & Côté, Understanding Adolescents’ Positive and Negative Developmental Experiences in Sport, 2009, p. 11). High school extra-curricular competition may be the first exposure to a particular sport for a number of athletes so it is imperative to teach physical literacy, physical fitness and skills to all players. It is always frustrating to see a tall player languish because they were only allowed to play near the basket. Eventually, this lack of development will limit their chances to play further.

At Springs Valley High School in French Lick, Indiana, Larry Bird was not forced to merely play close to the basket because he was tall. His coaches Jim Jones Gary Holland recognized Bird’s potential and taught him ballhandling and shooting fundamentals, something he remains grateful about and acknowledges as the source of a great deal of his success (Pearson, 2013).

When his body caught up to his skills, Bird could shoot from all over the floor and dominate the game. Holland would post Bird up on the left block and encourage him step out to the three point line after kicking the ball out, where his defender was unlikely to guard him. Holland was a rookie coach during Bird’s senior year but he knew enough to put his patient pattern offense aside and let Bird take initiative with his vision and intensity (Holland, 2009).

Overcoming Adversity

Persistence is critical in athletics because adversity is always present. Self-efficacy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy (Sternberg & Williams, 2002, p. 370) so coaches must prevent learned helplessness before it takes hold. All students face expectations in school, sports, and at home. These expectations should focus on an incremental view of intelligence and encourage work ethic (Rimm, 1990, p. 333). Perseverance is closely linked to achievement (Gladwell, 2009, p. 258) and sports teach children to keep working hard.

Student-athletes with high resilience are more likely to succeed in high school and university (Tough, 2012, p. 75). Extra-curricular sports can instill the attitude that failure is neither fatal nor final and help youth overcome adversity. The process of failing includes understanding what occurred and why and how to handle in in the future. Sessions to address these mental and psychological issues are as critical as the drills to correct physical and technical shortcomings.

Teenagers will delegate effort towards tasks that are easier to achieve and sacrifice progress in order to avoid public failure (Burton & Naylor, 2002, p. 480). High effort is a risk for those with fixed mindsets who worry they will be diminished if they work hard and fall short (Dweck, 2006, p. 42). Coaches convince youth that they are capable of overcoming adversity, creating opportunities to demonstrate competence in an activity (Schreck, 2011, p. 100).

To play sports, athletes and coaches must learn to lose. Life forces students and teachers lose, kids and adults lose. Making decision is mostly instinctive and it is necessary to learn from experience in order to improve performance (Lehrer, 2010, p. 39). Sports provide an essential format for coaches to teach athletes how do degrief (emotions) and debrief (skills) their performance (Halden-Brown, 2003, p. 186). This mistake management leads to better coping skills and improved future performance. Even when student-athletes succeed, they should review their performance and look for areas of improvement, whether it is during an exam or on the basketball court.

In the heat of the moment, we narrow our focus, sacrificing cognitive luxuries such as peripheral vision and logical thinking for the necessities: action and reaction (Lehrer, 2010, p. 99). As the point guard learns to widen the field of vision and move the ball to the appropriate player, the Grade 9 student acquires the ability to remain calm and handle pressure, like what will be faced during examinations and presentation. This experience is enhanced when the student-athlete reflects about their performance afterwards.


Coaching high school athletics is a delicate balancing act. The team is secondary to the school, and parents, peers, teachers, and extra-curricular activities fit into the mix. It’s a complete team effort to teach student-athletes the skills and abilities that they need for sport, school and life.

Sports require competition with others and there is usually a clock or a scoreboard. These competitive experiences in high school can be moderated by a coach or teacher do that they are learning experiences, not painful regrets. High school sports keeps students fit – both in terms of body and mind.

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