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06 Oct 2020 | 11:12 AM
authorPaddy Upton
The thin veil of pressure and fear
Paddy Upton writes about the two common mental obstacles to success in sport - Fear and pressure - and how that affects cricketers

One repeated story I am hearing from within IPL teams is how some players, way more so than others, are fearful of contracting the coronavirus. Even though almost all global statistics suggest that young healthy individuals are at no discernible health risk. 

What’s interesting is that some players seem to be significantly more fearful than others. They are facing exactly the same perceived ‘threat’, yet are having very different experiences. 

Fear itself is one of the two most common mental obstacles to success in sport, and possibly even in life. The other is pressure.

And an IPL tournament, especially for young and upcoming players, and even senior professionals, dishes up its fair share of pressure and fear. Specifically fear of failure, fear of letting your team down, fear of not being selected and in some cases, fear of injury against a really quick bowler. Fear of success is also not ruled out as a performance-limiting factor in sport.

I have lost count of the number of conversations I have had with professional cricketers, and athletes, about overcoming fear and pressure. Permit me to share some of the most common elements of these conversations. 

The very first step in the process of navigating fear and pressure is awareness of these concepts. It’s important that players understand that both fear and pressure are mental concepts that they create for themselves, within their own head. Sure, when it comes to the body’s response to fear and pressure, one can measure elevated heart rates, faster breathing, more alert muscles, hearing and eyesight and a number of other associated physiological responses to the release of adrenaline into our bodies. But these physical responses are always preceded with a thought in the brain.

Pressure arises in direct proportion to the amount of importance we place on a result. The more important it is to do well at some point in the future, the greater the pressure. Similarly, the more we worry about something going wrong in the future, the more fear arises. Both arise because we are here now, and our brain is stuck in the future, trying to deal with a situation that we can’t manage. And we can’t manage it because the situation we are focusing on is not happening now, it only exists as a thought. In this way, fear and pressure and concepts that players create for themselves, within their heads. 

Players who are scared of Covid would naturally be spending too much time thinking about maybe getting the virus at some point in the future. This is no different to a fielder who is scared of dropping a catch. Before the ball has reached them, their minds would be stuck in the future and worrying about dropping it. Even though they have not yet dropped, or caught it. It’s the same when a bowler is running into bowl and is worried about the batsmen hitting them for boundary, or a batsman who is worried about losing their wicket or being hit by a bouncer. None of these events are actually happening now, they are only a concept in the mind. And these thoughts almost always undermine performance more than they enhance it.  

Players who manage pressure and fear best are those who have the ability to recognise their mind is stuck in the anticipation of a future event and causing them to feel pressure or fear. The key is awareness! What we are aware of we can control. What we are not aware of, controls us. These players are able then to come up with a plan to deliver success, and to avert failure. They then focus on executing that plan, now, in the present moment. When they are focused in the present moment, fear and pressure automatically subside.

MS Dhoni wants to win and does not want to lose, but he does not define himself by either. We can see this in how he reacts when he loses a close game or pulls of one of his remarkable batting feats to win a game – he conducts himself quite similarly. 

Other players are visibly desperate to do well or visibly disappointed when they make a mistake. In general, the more secure a player is within themselves, the less affected by pressure or fear of failure. They want to do well, do not need to do well in order to feel good, look good and be praised. Self-esteem is an excellent antidote for pressure and fear.

Fear of failure is normal, but doesn’t make too much sense when we look at it more closely. In life, failure comes to all of us. And T20 cricket is more of a failure game than a game of success for individual players. Some teams may win more than 50% of their games, but very few players succeed in more than 50% of games. Bowlers will get hit to the boundary, often. Almost every batsman who walks to the crease will find themselves losing their wicket. There is little point in worrying about failing because it will happen anyway. Focus rather on doing everything you can to succeed. After all, success happens far more often when you spend time chasing success compared when you spend time trying to avoid failure. As in cricket, so in life. 

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