Conquering a Crisis

By Adam Kelly
PhD researcher in Sport Pyschology, Southampton Solent University

The term ‘crisis’ is used every now and then in sporting circles, however, it is also known as panic (when referring to an individual) or a collapse.  Adam Kelly asks; is this a bad thing? Taking the emotion out of the situation; a crisis could be your chance to change or a turning point for you or your team.

But how do you change? How can you minimise the negative effects of a crisis?

Tips for coaches
As coaches we invest masses of time and energy into our athletes and their performances. We know that staying objective and taking our emotions out of the situation is the best thing we can do, but this is easier said than done.
As coaches we have an effect on how our athletes view the situations facing them. Our body language, the terms we use, tactics we apply and the knowledge we provide can all impact the athletes’ perception of the situation. In these situations athletes are far more sensitive than usual. Therefore we need to provide a consistent message in these ‘crisis’ situations.

Tip 1: Staying calm
The key to dealing with a crisis at the time, is to stay calm. As coaches we have the opportunity to step back, look around and assess the situation before we make a decision.

This process is what Dr Steven Peters has termed ‘putting your chimp in a box’. This term is based on a scientific understanding of how the human brain reacts to situations. We are receiving a variety of stimuli from all around us, we cannot control those stimuli, but we can control our reactions. This is where Dr Peters’ term comes into play, as the primitive part of our brain will want to flight or fight the stimuli or situation. However, as human beings we have developed the ability to use our brain to make a decision based on our previous and vicarious experiences, not just the immediate siutation.  In a matter of seconds we can come up with a variety of solutions.

Commentators will often say ‘she/he is cool as a cucumber’, when actually their strength is just controlling their reaction to the stimuli they are facing.

Tip 2: Overcoming adversity
In sport there comes a moment in every coach and athletes career when we face and overcome adversity. Why do some succeed and others not? I would suggest the preparation for said situation is a key component for succeeding.

As we know ‘crisis’ situations will happen over a season, however not regularly enough for athletes to familiarize themselves with.  When preparing for a season, outline possible situations or ‘worst case’ scenarios. Implement these scenarios into training allowing the athletes to try new or reinforce certain tactics, mindsets and techniques. This helps provide the experience of these crisis situations. When the previous experience and familiarization is positive it helps contribute to increased levels of self-efficacy and confidence in our athletes.

Tip 3: Crisis means opportunity
In the aftermath of the ‘crisis’ some athletes will react to it as ‘a bad day at the office’, some will take it personally and get angry, others will dismiss or forget it. These are all natural reactions; once they have subsided we can assess the situations and look at a variety of options for the future. This provides us with the opportunity to change our behaviours or use the ‘crisis’ as a turning point as Pritchard suggests.

Review the situation that the team or athlete faced.  Take emotions out of the equation and deal in facts (also understand the players’ perspective). Try not to dismiss obscure tactics used by others, as this can become a bigger issue if other teams follow suit. After this review, start planning the changes, don’t be afraid of trying something new. This is the time to try new tactics, techniques, philosophy, physical training etc as the athletes will want to improve and are more open to new ideas.

A good example of this approach is the Australian cricket team losing the Ashes for the first time in 18-years back in 2005. Afterwards the Australian team analysed the situation and their response, thereby giving them to the

John was not afraid to try new tactics when overcoming adversity.  Changing behaviours sometimes requires thinking outside of the box.

John was not afraid to try new tactics when overcoming adversity. Changing behaviours sometimes requires thinking outside of the box.

opportunity to change their approach. Head coach John Buchanan took the team away for a boot camp where players and coaching staff were treated like soldiers. Everyone was assigned a role and had to follow a chain of command. Players and coaching staff had to carry water and camping equipment for hours across the outback. That night they only had a few hours sleep before been woken up and marched for another few hours. The key was for the group to develop new behaviours for dealing with adversity and understanding how, as a team, they could pull together when the going got tough.  They played the return series in Australia 2006-7 and won all five matches.

 Tip 4: Detailed planning
Plan future training, competition tactics and techniques in detail. Include back up plans for ‘crisis’ situations or obscure tactics. The coach and captain need to work together to provide the team with a clear direction and rationale for that direction. The direction is the new style of training or tactics being deployed. This direction needs time for the team to understand and may require reviewing. The review is a good time to include the team, as they will provide an insight into the training, which should be reflected the new direction.

A great example of using detailed planning to effect is former British Lions coach Sir Ian McGeechan. He uses a 45-minute warm-up for professional rugby teams, which is detailed by the minute. No vague areas, no generalised statements, everyone is focused upon maximising time and effort to get ready for competition.

Tips for athletes
As athletes we train day after day to prepare as best we can for competition and then on game day everything goes wrong. In our heads we ask ourselves ‘Why do I bother?’, ‘Am I good enough?’ or we tell ourselves ‘Everything is against me.’ So how can you perform with these thoughts and facing ‘crisis’ situations?

Tip 1: Staying calm
The same principles apply to athletes as they do to coaches.  We are all human and all have the same parts to our brains. We need to control our reaction to the stimuli or situation we are facing, by thinking and not reacting on our primitive instincts. This will give us the best chance of making the right decisions, which can turn the performance around.
Two examples of performers using Dr Peters ‘chimp in the box’ technique are: Ronnie O’Sullivan (World Snooker

Dr. Stephen Peters, pictured with Olympic Champion Victoria Pendleton.  Dr. Peters Chimp Philosophy was key to helping several members of the British team to stay calm under the intense pressure of competition and adversity.

Dr. Stephen Peters, pictured with Olympic Champion Victoria Pendleton. Dr. Peters Chimp Philosophy was key to helping several members of the British team to stay calm under the intense pressure of competition and adversity.

Champion) and the GB Cycling team (8 Olympic Gold’s). Both achieved great success by staying calm when difficult situations arose.

 Tip 2: Belief
Even when these doubts are in our heads, we can still turn the performance around. Great examples of athletes performing in a ‘crisis’ situation are; Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal to win the world cup, Ben Ainslie’s comeback to win Olympic sailing gold or the European golf team’s Ryder Cup win.

What these performers have in common in these situations is an inner belief that they will succeed. This belief is linked to self-efficacy, which is our perception of us succeeding at the task in hand. Self-efficacy can be built up through four factors: –

  1. previous experiences
  2. vicarious experience
  3. verbal persuasion
  4. physical state.

Of these factors, we know that our physical condition and previous experience are important, however, vicarious experiences and verbal persuasion can be equally important. Good examples of vicarious experiences are that of a team that ‘have the momentum’. When you see your teammates performing successfully you gain in confidence as a result, this is called vicarious experiences. Vicarious experiences can often lead to outsiders saying that the ‘momentum has changed’, as other players start performing better after seeing their teammates playing well.

Tip 3: Preparation
The underpinning for success in any sport is preparation. Coaches can provide the best training session, but if you (the athlete) do not engage in the session it becomes pointless. Athletes should be looking to improve everyday and every training session. This is easy to say, especially in amateur sport, as life can take over, but once you are at training you need to utilise every minute.

As an amateur athlete you may train twice a week for two hours that is only 4 hours. Elite athletes train for 30+ hours a week and they still make mistakes, so make sure you prepare effectively and utilise training sessions to give yourself the best chance of succeeding in those ‘crisis’ situations.


In conclusion we all need to take emotion out of the ‘crisis’ situation and work on the facts. Coaches should realise that the athletes will look to them for guidance and the coaches will look to the athletes to believe in their abilities. Together coaches and athletes can use ‘crisis’ situations to improve performance and develop more appropriate behaviours.

Follow Adam on twitter: @adamkellypsych or visit his blog:


Posted on 29/05/2013, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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