Pressure. One little word that if overcome can allow one man to succeed and move beyond whatever he thought he could accomplish. However it can also bring a man to his knees and extinguish all thoughts of self worth. For me, this is what sport is all about: seeing how sports people respond to pressure. It is unscripted drama. A modern day gladiatorial battle enacted out in the modern day coliseums of the sporting arena.
Well, it is kind of gladiatorial except for the fact you do not have heathen, sword-wielding fighters bearing down on you wanting to amputate any limb they get close to, or bears or tigers trying to rip your throat out. No, this modern day gladiatorial battle of sporting pressure is a physical one but more importantly a mental one. Talent is a special gift in sport. To be talented means you were born with the right genes or had tremendously pushy parents who paid for every coaching philosophy under the sun.
Talent can also be a burden. With talent comes expectation and with expectation comes pressure. There it is again. That two-syllable word that in sport is a constant companion. So how do you deal with pressure? Let us delve. I can only speak from a cricketing point of view on this matter. As much as I am a couch critic of a variety of sports it would be remiss of me to pass judgement on what's required to succeed at those sports. So cricket it is.
For a cricketer to play at local club team level requires 90 per cent ability and 10 per cent mental application. By this I mean you are playing in a large pool of players, the majority of them not particularly talented and so ability will shine through 90 per cent of the time. When you climb up the ranks and go to the next level and represent your state, county or province then you are narrowing the talent pool so this means to perform it is 50 per cent ability and 50 per cent mental.
I have played against some guys at this level who look like world-beaters. They look a million dollars and play like a million dollars in the context of those they are playing with and against. So, you have performed at this first-class level and now the next step. You will be playing at the same venues you have played at before and effectively it is the same game. Right? That could not be further from the truth.
The international game of cricket is 90 per cent mental and 10 per cent ability. The reason why it flips 180 degrees from club cricket is because of everything except the cricket. If it were just cricket that you had to worry about at international level then any club cricketer could play it. But at international level it is the peripheral of the game that needs dealing with. This word pressure makes its home in the international game because it comes at you from all angles, public, media, home, personal and team just to name a few.
How you succeed at this level is down to how you cope with pressure and this means how mentally strong you are. Mentally strong. Now this is a phrase that gets bandied around a lot and has loose meanings. But what is mentally strong? Simple. Handling pressure. Now I could go all mumbo jumbo on you here and begin talking about the conscious and sub-conscious minds and the optimum state to play in where you are non-judgemental and literally floating above yourself and watching like a third party while you enact out all that you have visualised. But I won't.
The optimum way to play cricket comes down to two simple factors. Before you play and while you play. If you have these two things in order then pressure, while ever present, will not permanently camp itself inside your head and pummel you with a mallet every five seconds to remind you it is there. Firstly, before you play. This is preparation. All great players work very hard. Often they are the first to arrive and the last to leave. But great players also know that when they are feeling right they do not practice for the sake of it.
Preparation is about signing off on your game so that you know you have the technical and physical side in order. If you do this then you know there is nothing more you can do and generally you can have a good night's sleep before the match. While you play it is more tricky to control because here you need a strong mind to stop yourself drifting towards the future and what the possible outcomes may be.
Often you will hear talk about being in the moment. That means thinking about nothing other than what is happening this ball. You try to block out everything around you, a bit like when your wife is yelling for you to unload the dishwasher or put away the things that you are sure she took out. "Staying in the now" is a catch-cry many athletes use and cricket is no exception. The game is only ever present during the ball that is being bowled. Do not let your mind drift. The great players master this very well and have an ability to block out all external factors to give themselves the purest form of concentration and hence the best chance to succeed. You will see here I said "chance" as nothing is for certain and dealing with failure ... well that is another column.
How you deal with pressure can define a career. In world cricket South Africa hold the mantle of crumbling under pressure in major tournaments. They have the most talent but the longer this streak goes on the more they will believe they are unluckier than everyone else. But is it unlucky? I think it has more to do with South Africa being conservative when they get to these tournaments. They want to win so badly that they try to manufacture a victory instead of just playing in the moment and letting their superior talent come to the fore.
Other teams also feel confident in tournaments against South Africa compared to individual series. It will be tough for South Africa but until they address their ability to "let go" I can't see them winning. And lastly, don't even get me started on the All Blacks. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org