All too often, coaches confuse the difference between “intensity” and “tense.” According to Webster, “Intensity” is defined as the quality or state of being intense, especially: an extreme degree of strength, force, energy, or feeling. They further define “Tense” as marked by strain or suspense.

Understanding the difference between these two is critical to the long term success and development of an athlete or team. It is also not just the coach who needs to understand that difference; parents and the players should even understand the difference. Coaches preach intensity all the time, but in many cases, they are merely creating tense players.

How do we achieve a level of intensity that positively impacts the player or team? First and foremost, you want to set goals and expectations. Players need to feel as if they are working towards something. We all want to know “why” we are doing something. Do your players understand why you are doing a specific drill? If not, how do you expect them to show intensity when doing it? You can’t. Next, set the same expectations for all players. This statement is relatively self-explanatory, but all too often not the case with many coaches. Look to develop a work ethic and passion among your players; make them love what they do, not despise it. Those are basics to keep in mind when working to create a culture of intensity.

Creating a tense atmosphere is almost a guarantee that a team or athlete will struggle long term. This status is seen at all levels of sports. When players stop buying into what the coach is selling, they are in trouble. When players play in fear of making mistakes, losing playing time, or being scolded in front of others, they rarely play well. Once this happens to a team, they rarely bounce back if the same structure continues to exist. If in a situation like this, the best solution would be to find a more positive atmosphere to play in. The same goes for parents. Parents need to foster passion and intensity, not anger, fear, and hostility.

In an interesting article in Psychology Today, Jim Taylor, Ph.D., states, “In recent years, I have found that a simple distinction appears to lie at the heart of the emotional reactions athletes have to their sport: threat vs. challenge.” On Emotional Threat. “At the heart of emotional threat is the perception that winning is all-important, and failure is unacceptable. The emotional threat is most often associated with too great an emphasis on winning, results, and rankings. The pressure to win from parents, coaches, and athletes themselves is also common. With these beliefs, it’s easy to see why competing in a sport would be emotionally threatening.”

On Emotional Challenge. “In contrast, emotional challenge is associated with your enjoying the process of your sport regardless of whether you achieve your goals. The emphasis is on having fun and seeing the competition as exciting and enriching. Sports, when seen as an emotional challenge, are an experience that is relished and sought out at every opportunity.”

Hopefully, we can start seeing more intensity on the field and less tense players.