Nov 16, 2007 – Playoff pressure is beating squarely on the shoulders of 10 Gwinnett high school football teams. Yet, no one seems willing to admit it.

Even first-timer Mill Creek is putting on its best “it’s just another game” face.

But the pressure the Hawks will feel when they make their playoff debut at Harrison on Friday is real.

Nervousness or pressure is caused by the frontal lobe of the brain. It reminds you of the consequences of the situation and produces an adrenaline rush.

Dr. John F. Murray, a sport performance psychologist from Palm Beach, Fla., uses the example of how easy it is to walk across a 2-by-4 lying on the ground of your home compared to walking across one 100 feet above I-85.

“Pressure can lead to anxiety, which can lead to nervousness, which can lead to choking, which can lead to performing horribly,” Murray said.

To help alleviate the pressure, coaches try to limit outside distractions and keep their team’s routine as normal as possible. Mill Creek coach Shannon Jarvis said the only thing different about this week’s itinerary is the transportation. The Hawks will be taking chartered buses down to Harrison.

“Kids can sense in a heartbeat if the coaches seem a little nervous or if we’re practicing a little longer this week,” Jarvis said. “I’m a firm believer that you keep the same routine.”

That’s all well and good, but there’s still going to be an increased amount of butterflies in the stomachs of the Hawks no matter how similar the week seems to a September game with South Forsyth.

For most of the seniors, a loss will mean the end of their careers.

“It does put a little more pressure on winning, because, well, we’ll be done otherwise,” Mill Creek senior linebacker Collin Stuart said. “Let’s just say that I’m going to go out there a little harder, a little faster.”

Alan Behrman, a sport psychologist at the Anxiety & Stress Management Institute in Marietta, says preparation is the key to reducing pressure. “When you feel like you’ve been there before,” Behrman said, “it makes all the difference in the world. That’s why you see NFL players who handle those kinds of situations better than others, guys like Tom Brady. The pressure doesn’t matter because they’ve been there before. They’ve been there, done that.

“Where as the new kid of the block, their nerves may get a little bit out of hand because they don’t know how to handle it and don’t have any experience to fall back on.”

Since Mill Creek is the new kid on the block, Mark Irish, a sports hypnotherapist and the director of Southeast Center for Sport Psychology in Duluth, suggests using positive imagery before the game to prevent negative consequences from creeping into players’ minds.

“Without a lot of success up until this year,” Jarvis said, “the hardest thing for us to do for our kids was to get them to quit playing in fear of making a mistake.”

Jarvis, who, like his team, will be making his playoff debut as a head coach, shows a highlight tape at each pregame meal. The tape has the same highlights from throughout the season and backed by music.

“We’re trying to ingrain in our kids’ minds and make them visualize moments when they were playing hard, making plays and enjoying the game of football,” Jarvis said.

“I really enjoy it,” Stuart said of the highlight reel. “I like seeing it because sometimes I miss some of the plays my offensive teammates make and, of course, I don’t mind seeing the ones I’ve made, too.”


Mark Irish, a sports hypnotherapist and director of Southeast Center for Sport Psychology in Duluth, recommends a neural linguistic programming technique called anchoring.

Irish says when an athlete reaches a point where he is really focused, relaxed and playing well, he can, for instance, squeeze together his thumb and index finger.

“What you’re doing is relating the feeling of being in the zone to a physical sensation,” said Irish. “After a few times doing that, when you realize that you’re not in the zone and playing poorly, you can go ahead and press together the thumb and index finger and actually bring back that sensation of what it is like to be in the zone.”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.