Pressure and how it impacts on performance is an impossible thing to accurately quantify or control although there is no lack of trying and well paid ‘professionals’ on hand to assist.
With Andy Murray, who I would argue is the greatest British sportsman of the last 50 years, our tennis appetite has been adequately provided for and yet we always hanker for more and why Emma Raducanu was such a welcome surprise. Emma is the new tennis sensation who has it seems everything on her side for global stardom. She is a young, tall and just happens to be beautiful which whether we like or not, is as much as part of her armoury as her tennis game. Consider the career of the Russian player, Anna Kournikova. Known for her beauty, she made as many millions and more as her playing competitors who regularly beat her on the court but not in the board rooms.
And so it can be for Emma with fever pitch media interest demurring over her with talk of her being a sponsors dream. All of which creates pressure on someone so young (18) not to mention that she is playing in only her 3rd professional tournament, her first Grand Slam and with a wild card which I imagine creates resentment (and pressure) from other more ‘deserving’ and older players. Oh, and it happens to be her home tournament and Wimbledon no less.
Then add in the pressure of actually winning through her matches, so expectations build and being hastily shifted on to show courts and live television. A slightly bigger examination than her school exams which she has only just completed. Her fourth round match is held back in the schedules by the BBC for an evening slot so they can maximise their viewing audience and of course, this ramps up the pressure also.
And pressure has consequences. In the final set and playing brilliantly she loses a chance to break her opponent’s serve and goes 3-0 down. What happens next is really no surprise. She appears to be overwhelmed by her circumstances. She begins to cry and is taken from the court and is unable to complete her match. And immediately all commentators began scrambling for possible explanations other than what is commonly known as a panic attack and I think in such circumstances is perfectly understandable. I have had my own panics ahead of certain gigs when I have wanted to flee from venues. Even if it was something more medically accountable like respiratory issues I am surprised that when mental health is in the spotlight and owning our frailties is so encouraged, that people could not even countenance something like acute anxiety. As though it is something to be ashamed of, which it certainly isn’t.
And similarly in football this week with the infamous missing of penalties; something which continues to torment the England football team. There are few players who want to take a penalty and if Messi, Ronaldo and Maradona have all taken and missed, then there is no disgrace in doing the same. In my brief football career I was a player who vanished when penalty kick volunteers were called for which is why I am so admiring of any player who takes on the role and especially in a match with the hopes of an entire nation resting on it. Add in Live TV. The expectant crowd including two future Kings of England and David Beckham – a man who famously missed in similar circumstances.
The pressure on these three young men was unbearable and I am afraid it prevented them from doing what they had obviously been able to do in training. Why else would the manager have selected them for the job?
This weekend is the Open Championship. The oldest golf tournament and arguably the most prestigious and most difficult to win. A game which is the hardest of all and notoriously requires as much mental fortitude as ability. There are many sayings in golf, many of them are wise and speak volumes but perhaps the most powerful one pertains to the short putt.
It is interesting that the shortest shot in golf carries with it the most pressure. And the short putt can be the hardest shot of all as plenty of brilliant golfers who have seen championships fall from their grasp as a tiny putt slides by.
And the saying then that I have alluded to…
The most important six inches in golf are the six inches between the golfers ears.
So can withstanding pressure be something that is taught or acquired? Or is it just innate?
And shouldn’t being able to handle pressure be something which comes with age and experience? If so, then why was I so nervous ahead of a gig in front of only 60 people (socially distanced) this week? And why do professional golfers lose their competitiveness on the greens where the stroke does not require any physical prowess.
Colin Montgomerie, the famous golfer once said, that every golfer has a limited allocation of five feet putts.
I have much to be grateful for when it comes to handling pressure. Not mine, however. How is it that Tom is able to perform under circumstances that would have seen both his parents buckle?
An answer to this question might be a very lucrative one and if I had it, then I might be tempted to write the book that many parents would read.
His Marvel audition process is a good example particularly when he got to the stage of running lines and scenes with the actors who are his heroes and on full sized movie sets with hundreds of people watching.
The truth is, I don’t know how this has occurred. A fluke or a quirk of genes. Just darned good fortune and not something I can explain or really take credit for.
Emma Raducanu, Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford… you have nothing to be ashamed of or apologise for. For all your obvious prowess – these were the kids at school who were different and so admired – but what you all proved is that you are normal and fallible just like the admiring throng who watch and hang on your ability. I fully expect you will all return and whatever achievements lie ahead for you all, they will be richly deserved.
Pressure is a burden of course but as we know, pressure also creates diamonds – and this isn’t a bad metaphor for the people who become sports stars who we all admire.