Responses to 'pressure' - how do we cope?

Pressure shows up when something 'matters' - simplest way I can put it.

Point in case.  The Bucks boys 18&U County Cup team, mainly made up of Everyball/Halton players, had 6 match points over the weekend to hold off relegation to group 4 next year.  They lost 'em all.

Naturally, there has been talk in the programme this week about the pressure of it, of blowing it, and of course.....wait for it....the dreaded word....choking!!

Yes choking, and I'm delighted to hear it, and here's why:

When pressure shows up, it's often accompanied by nerves, fear, anxiety, tension that express themselves both psychologically but also physiologically.  We don't always like these feelings.  They can be uncomfortable.

So, at an unsophisticated level we look to replace them with the following responses.

  • Don't show up - we actually 'flee' the scene, we make up an excuse, fake an injury or illness, do anything but be there
  • We 'tank' - tanking is withdrawing of effort.  Often done publicly to show that I'm not trying and if I really was I would win
  • Anger - a more familiar and comfortable emotion kicks in.  Not just a burst of anger (which from time to time can help release bit of tension), but sustained anger throughout a match

None of these responses are particularly helpful, but there is an improving order.  The anger response is better than tanking, and tanking is better than not showing.

Next in line then, is choking!!  Choking, and we've ALL been there (and if we're being honest have been there with all the others), is the closet we get to the ideal response to pressure.  Choking, when we get the 'elbow' or our legs go heavy/dead (Jana Novotna against Steffi Graff Wimbledon final in 1993 when she was up a set and 4-1 and blew it) is a sign of courage.  It means you're prepared to face up to the challenge, face the fear, tackle those feelings head on rather than run away from them with one of the above lesser responses.

And it means, that on this occasion the nerves/fear got to you.  We are human, it's normal.  You'll remember Novotna went on to win Wimbledon a couple of years later.

The bull's eye, the ideal response to pressure, is the 'challenge' response, where you feel buoyed and right 'up' for the challenge, where you look pressure in the eye, accept it's a privilege to be out there competing and come up with the 'goods'.  And the more you find yourself in those pressure moments, the more we can re-create them in the training environment, the better you'll get at coming up with this desired response.

You can see the responses to pressure as concentric circles, with the challenge response the bull's eye.  And you'll notice, that closest to the bull's eye is.....choking.

Well done Bucks boys - you put yourself in the position to win and this time it didn't work out.  You'll be better and more ready for it next year as you fight for promotion back up the divisions.  Great discussion with players about this last night in academy squads.

(Adapted from Dr. James Loehr - Responses to Pressure)