Elite sport is in a constant state of turmoil between searching for new ideas and remaining true to the universal truths that have existed since competition began. There are certain variables that are not quantifiable and yet still undoubtedly constitute the make-up of competition. Variables such as hard work, passion, determination. One such variable is pressure. By DANIEL GALLAN for CONQA SPORT.
This article first appeared on Conqa Sport and has been republished here with permission.
“Golf is a thinking man’s game,” once mused Puerto Rican golfer, Chi-Chi Rodriguez. Of course, every sport involves some degree of thinking, but what Rodriguez was getting at is that the time spent thinking in golf is much greater than any other sport. Makes sense, right? If an average round of 18 holes involves hitting the ball 72 times, and the average time the ball is in contact with the club is 0.0004 seconds, the average time the ball is struck over the course of 4-5 hours is under 0.03 seconds.
That’s 0.03 seconds of actual hitting in a game that lasts between four to five hours. That leaves a lot of time for thinking. Thoughts in the brain develop much the same way as pearls in oysters. Layers form on top of one another until something tangible emerges. If a bad thought creeps up, like worrying about making the cut or whether or not the next putt has a Major on the line, the pearl can start to resemble something truly disastrous.
In golf it’s known as the “yips”, cricketers whisper about “choking” and baseballers speak of “clutch” moments that matter more than others. Whatever its name is, the abstract concept of pressure is not simply a buzz term that has gained traction over the years, but is something that is engrained within the fabric of competitive sport. Navigating pressure is often seen as the difference between success and failure.
But what if it were all a lie? What if pressure was just a whole lot of smoke and mirrors used as a convenient throwaway term by those who don’t understand the mechanics of sport? What if the Proteas aren’t actually chokers who succumb to pressure? What is it then?
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003), by Michael Lewis, is the now famous book about the Oakland Athletics and their General Manager, Billy Beane, who took the third poorest team in Major League Baseball on a record winning streak of 20 games. Using an evidence based (sabermetric) approach, and ignoring conventional baseball wisdom, the 2002 Oakland A’s changed the rules for sports management. One conventional wisdom that Beane sanctimoniously ignored was clutch hitting and, by extension, clutch hitters.
Beane was preaching the gospel of Dick Cramer, a pioneer of statistical baseball research, and Pete Palmer, author of The Hidden Game of Baseball (1984). According to the sceptics, clutch hitting is not supported by empirical evidence and therefore cannot be considered a variable that determines a player’s value. The theory states that a player who performs differently under pressure is not someone who makes it to the Majors. What we’re seeing is not a player who ups his game when the chips are down. This is a player who performs at his best regardless of the situation. For every homer in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded, there are many other identical hits that occur throughout the season without the same fuss.
Chris Passarella is an associate director for the mental conditioning department at the New York Yankees and goes to great lengths to explain that the concept of pressure, and perceived pressure situations, are nothing more than labels that need doing away with. He says, “Pressure is simply the cognitive measure of your likelihood to meet personal standards of an execution of a skill.”
According to Passarella, it boils down to where an athlete’s focus is. If that focus is inward, on the athlete’s own ability and training, the external situation will not impact on performance. If however the focus is on the game situation, the athlete can slip into a mindset in which something special needs to happen.
“Coping under pressure simply means reverting to your normal,” Passarella says. “Those guys who appear to perform under pressure are mislabelled as clutch players when all they’re doing is what they normally would have done in any other situation.”
That is why the New York Yankees’ coaches instill an understanding in their players that every out has a life and history of its own, but that each play must be treated the same. Of course, certain situations will dictate strategy, but the emphasis is not on the context.
Passarella encourages the use of triggers – simple words that are repeated during training, where the pressure is off and success is recurrent, and then again said out loud when the stakes are high in front of thousands of fans.
After winning the 2014 Open Championship, Rory McIlroy disclosed that he used triggers throughout the tournament as a way of remaining calm and focusing on his own ability. When he had a driver or iron in his hands he would say the word “process” – a reminder to stick to his own process no matter what was going on around him. On the greens he said the word “spot” – to visualise the spot where he was going to roll the ball over.
By repeating these words throughout the tournament, McIlroy was able to place the same emphasis on each shot. His opening tee shot on Thursday meant as much to him as his final putt on Sunday. Passarella points out that it is the simplest techniques that yield the best results.
“It wasn’t a complex scheme that he has able to master,” he says. “It’s just reverting back to normal and ensuring that those triggers have meaning. It’s so important to express how you’re feeling in any situation because then you can either stay in the zone or revert back to normal.” It is often the simplest mental processes that allow for improved performances during pressurised moments.
Passarella and the Yankees’ coaching staff encourage their players to watch videos of themselves soon after the match has ended (the sooner the better) and describe what their mindset was in the given situation. By vocalising how they felt at their best as well as at their worst, they are able to cognitively differentiate between the two mind-sets and then prompt adjustments where necessary.
It is Passarella’s wish to eradicate the entire concept of pressure from his athlete’s psyche, though he admits this is easier said than done. He explains how players will often come to him with the assumption that they failed because of pressure.
“That is a false accusation,” Passarella insists. “Hitters might say that they’re a different hitter when the bases are loaded compared to when there are no men on base. This is obviously not true.”
Understandably, athletes experience anxieties and fear of failure and the questions that run through the mind of the athlete can be a hindrance. “Am I living up to my salary?” … “Am I living up to my ideal of what it means to be an athlete?” … “What will failure mean for the fans and my future within the sport?” It’s hard enough trying to hit a 90-mile-an-hour fast ball with a clear mind when the game is on the line. Try doing that with all those questions swimming around your head.
Sport is obviously a result based business where only the best are rewarded. As long as that is the case, athletes and coaches will feel pressure to perform. Understanding that the term “pressure” is a construct, and that what constitutes success or failure should always be attributed to something more tangible than the abstract, allows athletes and coaches to shift their focus to what matters – the skills they possess and the game plan. This mindset creates an athlete that is not concerned about the result of the game or the broader narrative of the season. Instead, all that matters is the individual play. Once that play is over, the next play is all that matters.
Human history is littered with examples of once firmly held beliefs that no longer carry significance. This buzz word, which has been given so much gravitas, will fade into obscurity, one hopes. DM
Photo: New York Yankees infielder Mark Teixeira (R) celebrates with New York Yankees outfielder Chris Young (C) and New York Yankees infielder Brendan Ryan (L) after driving them in with a grand slam home run against the Chicago White Sox in the second inning of their MLB game at US Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois, USA, 31 July 2015. New York Yankees designated hitter Alex Rodriguez also scored on the hit. EPA/TANNEN MAURY
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