Thursday, August 1, 2013


As I write this post, the sports world, especially the golfing world as abuzz with the final round exploits of one Phil Mickelson in the 2013 British Open played at famed Muirfield on the east coast of Scotland recently. His 66 took him from 5 shots down going into the final round to a three stroke victory and his first in this major golf tournament. Only the U. S. Open stands between Mickelson and the Grand Slam (winning all four major golf tournaments [the Masters and the P.G.A. being the other two]) although he holds the unique position of having been runner up in the U.S. Open on six occasions.

The word I heard most often regarding his exceptional last round score was "pressure". I found the use of that word at least, interesting, as I felt the "pressure" was not on Mickelson but rather the British golfer Lee Westwood, who many feel is one of the best golfers to have never won one of the majors. He went into the last round with a three shot lead. Now that's pressure in my mind, not coming from five shots back with nothing to lose (the money is of little consequence). The famous golfer of yesteryear, Lee Trevino, probably summed it up best re. pressure when he said, "Pressure is playing a $5 Nassau with only $2 in your pocket!".

What is pressure? According to my Merriam-Webster on line dictionary it's "the stress or urgency of matters demanding attention". In sports, the matter demanding attention is one's performance or winning (those who know me best also know I draw a distinction between performance and winning). The key word in the definition in my mind is "stress". According to Merriam-Webster stress is a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. The key word in that definition is "tension". I've listened to enough sports psychologists and champion calibre athletes to know that when one is tense, even though skills can never be left at home, a satisfying performance is all but impossible. The antithesis to stress & tension is "calm". Great performances come from athletes who achieve a sense of well being resulting in a calmness that allows skills to come to the surface.

In any competition the most dangerous team/player is the one that has low expectations and high trust. This is not a new concept on my blog site. I've discussed this before but I've never tied it to "pressure".  

One of the great enemies of performance is "expectations". Expectations are largely artificial, many times imposed by some third party. The best example of that in Canada is the mantra heard across this land every four years as the Winter Olympic Games loom on the horizon. From sea-to-sea-sea the words, "It's gold or nothing!"reverberate from hill and dale, from prairie to lake. Talk about expectation/pressure! Of course it's very well-intentioned and meant to be supportive of our ice hockey team but it's misplaced, understandable coming from fans but not helpful. Thankfully the players, coaches and administrators at Hockey Canada for the most part simply smile and say "thank you". Who needs that kind of pressure?!

But pressure can also be self-imposed. Trying to be "perfect" all the time is pressure to the nth degree, a subject about which I written in "A Pane in the Glass: A Coach's Companion" (p. 203, what you don't have your copy?).

Then you hear the phrase, "I/we play better under pressure!". No you don't! You play as well you need to play if that's the way you want to approach a contest. Recently the coach of a talented junior curling team mentioned that when the team returns to its Tuesday night league game from a weekend competitive spiel, the team finds it difficult to be motivated to put forth the best effort. That's not a good sign! It means the team has at least one eye on the outcome or the prize. The prize was bigger or more important for the weekend spiel so the effort matched its value.  

So we see then that pressure sometimes is tied to the reason for participation. The return on investment in that Tuesday league game simply did not make a full effort, well, worth the effort. My concern is that this team is slowly sliding into the abyss believing it can turn it "off" and "on" at will. My response was, "It's much easier to keep something going that it is to get it going!" I'm not the first to utter those words but whomever was, said a mouthful!

Now we're into the world of inspiration and motivation. Again, full credit to my daughter Susan, the professional speaker who set me straight on the difference between the two. Inspiration can come from a variety of sources, role models, family, friends, fans, coaches, sponsors etc. Motivation has but one source, the athlete! You may have the full toolbox of skills but if the motivation to use them effectively is missing, it's like the tools themselves are missing. You performance will likely be disappointing to say the least. 

Sometimes there's a very fine line between "inspiration" and "pressure". Your stakeholders might have wanted to inspire you to a great performance but the distillate was a perceived pressure to perform on your part. If you're trying to inspire someone, especially a teammate, make sure it's seen as inspiration and not pressure.

Dr. James Loehr, in his book, "The New Toughness Training for Sport" created a matrix he called "The Ideal Performance State". All athletes have been there but it's my experience few know how to create that state. Dr. Loehr's book is a must read!

A successful performance comes when the athlete is motivated to want to perform/win but without the fear of failure. Ah, there's the rub, the fear of failure. When Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees broke into major league baseball, in his first few years, his defensive prowess was suspect. Jeter's defense has been the subject of criticism from a number of sabermetricians, including Rob Neyer and the publication Baseball Prospectus. The 2006 book The Fielding Bible by John Dewan contains an essay by Bill James in which he concludes that Jeter "was probably the most ineffective defensive player in the major leagues, at any position" over his entire career. A 2008 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that, from 2002 through 2005, Jeter was the worst defensive shortstop in MLB. Two sites that rely on advanced defensive statistics, and, rated Jeter below middle-of-the-pack status in 2010, despite his receiving his fifth Gold Glove Award that season.

Jeter committed 18 errors in 2007, his highest total since finishing with 24 in 2000. After the season, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and his staff saw Jeter's defense as an area that needed to be addressed. To say that Jeter turned that ship around is an understatement. His errors dropped in dramatic fashion. Sure he had more experience but his skill set had not changed dramatically. What changed was the pressure he put on himself. You could also say, he had a different attitude. When asked about the sudden improvement, Jeter reply was concise, "I stopped being afraid to fail! (and I might add, caring about that "others" thought about him)". 
At this point you might have expected me to say that he also had more confidence. In my view, his level of "trust" had risen which is the true source of confidence in my view. 

And that leads me to my favourite question when I work with an athlete or team, "How much do you trust your skills?" Give me a less skilled and experienced athlete/team that trusts the skills he/she/it has over a highly skilled athlete/team that does not!!!

I remind athletes about to play an important game (and I'll use curling as my example) that the ice and stones do not know it's the final game. You will sink to the level of your preparation so prepare as well as you're able!

I'm in the early stages of getting Canada's national senior champions, men & women, prepared to head to Dumfries, Scotland next April to the 2014 World Senior Curling Championships. My main goal as coach is to help them come to the point that if they trust the skills they will have at that time, there will be no pressure as it will bring a calmness that is the hallmark of every great performance. Nervous, why feel nervous or pressured? I trust my skills and my preparation. I just can't wait to play!

* some material on Derek Jeter was excerpted from Wikipedia

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