Under Pressure: Winning, Losing and Learning

Sports pressure

You can’t touch it, but you can feel it creeping up on you. It’s invisible, but you can see its effects on people. Pressure can make or break a sports performance. Your ability to deal with pressure can be the difference between glory, relief, failure or disappointment. There are many famous examples of teams and individuals at the pinnacle of sport either embracing the pressure or cracking under it, but what about those fighting tooth and nail for survival at the bottom of the table at the end of every season? Which situation creates the greatest pressure?

It’s getting to that point in the football season where one goal, one mistake or one moment of heroics can be the difference between winning a championship or being left disappointed and empty-handed. This season’s Premier League relegation battle has become considerably more interesting than Chelsea’s dominance and early confirmation as champions. Three points for a victory has the same mathematical value at the beginning of May as it does in the middle of October, but the increasing pressure at the end of the season can make every point seem to have greater significance. Perhaps it’s down to the dawning of reality about what is at stake.

In football, the stakes are blown out of all proportion. Relegation from the Premier League can mean a loss of £60m in revenue for a club, which can have major long-term effects on their chances of future success. Of course, it isn’t just about money. John Carver, Newcastle United’s interim manager, claimed a couple of days ago that he is the best coach in the Premier League (despite taking only 9 points from a possible 48 and a recent run of 8 consecutive defeats). I sense Jose Mourinho may disagree with this claim. Perhaps Carver is playing mind games or perhaps he is completely disillusioned (that’s a kindly way of saying stupid)… Or maybe the pressure that failure inevitably tends to pile onto the jobs of the managers and players is making him talk nonsense.

“Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” Peyton Manning

Let’s move back to the real world. In hockey, it’s not the threat of gaining or losing millions of pounds of revenue, or leaving a stadium full of thousands of devastated fans that create pressure. Except in a few cases, it’s unlikely to mean coaches or players will lose their main source of income if a team doesn’t stay up or win a championship. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t high pressure involved in a team’s quest for glory, promotion or survival. Perhaps it’s fair to say that the pressure in club hockey is more related to feelings and expectations. I’ve been fortunate enough to only experience a relegation battle once and it’s definitely something I’m happy not to repeat! Thankfully we did stay up on the last day… The most pressure I’ve felt in my club career has definitely been related to trying to repeat success. With both Leicester and Surbiton, it hasn’t been the first championship we’ve won that has been the toughest, but achieving this again. Expectations of yourself and others, history, being favourites rather than underdogs… all can create a sense of pressure that you have to deal with. In the end, it’s also about how you perform, whether you take your chances, maybe even a little slice of luck – but I’m convinced that how you cope with the internal and external pressures upon you affects these factors.

“I think it comes back to the fact that I loved running. I loved it so wholeheartedly and so purely that it helped me transcend that pressure.” Cathy Freeman

Although it annoys me when sports commentators use ‘experience’ as a definitive reason for a sportsperson’s skill execution in any and every game situation, I do believe it can be a factor in dealing with pressure. As a young player, I used to get quite nervous before playing – perhaps about the outcome of the game, how I might play or simply playing in an unfamiliar environment. These days, I rarely get nervous. I guess I’ve figured out how to get myself into the right headspace by knowing how to prepare, what kind of warm up I need and what to think about (and not think about!). It doesn’t mean I don’t ever feel pressure and it doesn’t mean I always play well! But I feel like because I always try to learn from the situations I have experienced, I know that pressure is only as significant as you allow it to become. This all means I find playing in big games much more enjoyable than nerve-wracking. Pressure can be fun!

“Pressure is a privilege.” Billie Jean King

So can we actually measure which pressure is most difficult to deal with? I’m not sure we can, because often these pressures are very different. Pressure can be internal and external. Relegation battles and qualifying tournaments may be more related to wanting to avoid failure. Challenging for titles may seem like more of an opportunity to succeed. And the context itself can completely turn this on its head. Winning last time around may give one champion huge confidence, but create an expectation or pressure that is too great for another to cope with. Escaping relegation by a whisker may become a vital learning experience for one team whereas even being in that situation is seen as a failure for another. Ultimately, maybe it doesn’t matter which pressure is most difficult to deal with – it’s about how well you deal with it and how well you learn from it.