Handling stress in competition

With the lack of NHL hockey on television this fall, it has given many of us the opportunity to watch some important events in other sports, and, possibly, take in some lessons in their outcomes. Over the past few weeks there have been some wonderful examples of how the stress of competition has influenced athletes’ performance, and in some cases this influence has meant the difference between winning and losing. Here a few examples from the past few weeks in sport, for those who might have missed them – due to midterms, perhaps, or other academic reasons.

My first example is the recent comeback win by the NFL’s Denver Broncos over the San Diego Chargers on Monday Night Football on October 15. The Chargers scored three first-half touchdowns to take a 24-0 lead at halftime, thoroughly dominating the overall play and time of possession. Yet, in the second half, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning led his team to score 35 un-answered points to win the game 35-24, the fourth-largest comeback in NFL history and tied for the largest comeback ever on a Monday night game.

What was the difference? In a word, turnovers. In the first half, the Broncos gave up opportunities by turning over the football, resulting in several scores by the Chargers. In the second half, the tide reversed itself, particularly in the fourth quarter. In the final 15 minutes of play, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was intercepted four times and lost two fumbles. The four pickoffs and six turnovers were both career-highs.

Did both quarterbacks forget how to play football during the game? No. Did the defence of both teams stop trying? No. Did any of the players forget how to kick, run, catch, or pass? No. But both teams suffered tremendously from stress: the Broncos in the first half, and the Chargers in the second after acquiring that lead. And the stress, particularly for the Chargers, was deadly.

My second example is Robinson Cano, second baseman of the storied New York Yankees. Before the major league baseball playoffs began, Cano was unstoppable at the plate. In the final three weeks of the regular season, Cano was batting over .600 and led his team to a playoff spot, ensuring that the Yankees finished first in the American League East ahead of the wild-card Baltimore Orioles.

Then the playoffs started, and something happened. All of a sudden, Cano simply could not hit the ball. Cano went on an 0-29 slump at the plate, until his first hit against the Tigers in their final game when the outcome was already certain and the Yankees would be bounced out of the playoffs. Cano did not get a hit in eight straight days, zero hits on 116 pitches thrown by 13 different pitchers, some of them the same pitchers he had played against the previous three weeks. And Cano was not alone. Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez (“A-Rod”) was in a monstrous slump of his own, and with veteran Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter out of the lineup with a broken ankle suffered in the first game against the Tigers, the Yankees were left without any contributions from almost their entire infield. And so the Tigers swept them in the American League pennant series 4-0.

My final example is the recent CFL regular-season game between the Calgary Stampeders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, played at McMahon Stadium in Calgary last Saturday in the snow. The Stamps already have a playoff spot locked up in the CFL West; a win would guarantee them home field advantage for the West semi-final (likely, but not certain, against my Saskatchewan Roughriders). Hamilton, on the other hand, had to treat this game as a must-win, because failure to do so might squander any chance they had of keeping a 3-rd place playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

While Hamilton had to treat the game as a playoff game, they never led in the score. They did manage to keep it close, however, until the dying minutes of the 4th quarter. Trailing by 8 points in the 4th, Hamilton quarterback Henry Burris led his squad down the field to score an all-important touchdown with a minute to go. The two-point conversion failed; hence Hamilton had no choice but to try a short kickoff and try to recover the ball. To their credit, the special-teams squad for Hamilton executed the play perfectly and Hamilton found themselves at mid-field with only 30 seconds to go, but with no timeouts remaining. Burris found receiver Dave Stala at the Calgary 25 with 10 seconds to go, and the stage was set for Hamilton kicker Luca Congi (of Waterloo, Ontario) to kick the winning field goal.

But Congi never got the chance to kick the ball. On the field goal attempt, veteran holder Andy Fantuz, ex-Saskatchewan Roughrider and star at the University of Western Ontario, fumbled the snap from center and there was no field goal attempt. The Stampeders simply tackled the stumbling Fantuz and the game was over. An astonishing outcome, given that Fantuz has held the ball during field goals for his entire professional career and for years earlier, starting in high school – perhaps sooner – with thousands of attempts under his belt.

The common theme amongst all three of these can be summed up in one word: pressure. Which brings us to curling – that sport where so much depends on the skip being able to make that “save”, that shot that keeps his team in the game, or to make that draw shot that seals the win.

So here’s the question: as a player, suppose you’re in a slump like Robinson Cano. You can’t make a shot, can’t find draw weight. Or you can do it in the early and middle ends, but you lose the feel of draw weight playing the 8th. What would you like your teammates to say to you? How would you like them to respond? Would it be different on the ice, versus off? Would you want to be left alone? What would you like your coach to do?

It is easy to play with confidence when things are going well. But it is rare to keep that feeling going for long – although this year’s National League Champion San Francisco Giants are giving a clinic to the world about the meaning of the word “momentum”. But what do you do when your shot-making goes south? How do you and your teammates respond? Can you conquer those feelings of doubt and turn it around by yourselves?

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