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Panic or Perform - The Mental Game of Pressure


Panic or Perform - The Mental Game of Pressure

Carlos Alcaraz breathes deeply into the towel that covers his face. This was not part of the plan, he thinks. Not even close. After all the pre-game visioning he has put himself through that morning, here he is, one set down in Paris, against the man he had himself labelled a legend, not so long ago. 

He takes another deep breath. Yes, Novak Djokovic is good. More than good. But he is also human, the 19-year old reminds himself. With Rafael Nadal out of the French Open with an injury for the first time in a decade, Djokovic knows this is his best chance of going ahead in the Grand Slam race. The pressure the Serb has undoubtedly put on himself is enormous. And that, the Spaniard knows, leaves his opponent vulnerable. 

As he prepares to begin the second set, Alcaraz looks up at the French Open motto flashing across the bottom of the second tier of Court Philippe Chatrier. Victory belongs to the most persevering it reads. France’s greatest hero Napoleon said it. Aviator Roland Garros embraced it. Rafael Nadal lives by it. Carlos Alcaraz knows he can do it.

When the second set begins, a calmer Alcaraz emerges. The edginess has turned to quiet determination. Shots climb miraculously off his racquet as they approach the net, and drop inexplicably just as the Djokovic baseline seems impossibly near. 

And then the young pretender produces the shot of the tournament. 

Chasing down a lob and with his back to the net, he flicks an angled forehand past a disbelieving Djokovic standing in the service box. Almost immediately the (then) 22 time Grand Slam winner, the fittest man to ever play tennis, begins to struggle physically. After saving a breakpoint at 5-5, it is the Spaniard who takes the set 7-5. The momentum has swung. Pressure, it appears, had been transferred. 

There is however a twist in the tale yet to come. 

At one set all, 1-0 up in the third, and 40-30 on the Djokovic serve, Alcaraz starts cramping badly. It begins in his right calf and travels upwards, until he finds it impossible to move. Djokovic steamrolls through the set, winning 11 consecutive games, and sweeps the match 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1. 

The fans file silently out of the court. Why, they wonder, has the most hyped inter generational conflict in tennis between two supremely fit athletes at the top of their game ended this way? 

The answer comes later that night in a candid confession from Alacaraz. At the press conference, he reveals that his full body cramps were caused not by dehydration as widely believed, but nerves. He says:

‘[It] has been really tough for me today. I have never felt something like I did today. Playing a semi-final of a grand slam, you have a lot of nerves, but even more with facing Novak. That’s the truth. If someone says that he gets into the court with no nerves playing against Novak, he lies. It [my cramps] was a combination of a lot of things. But the main thing was the tension that I had in all the two first sets.’

Alcaraz knew he could do it. He thought he would do it. But he could not do it. Pressure builds diamonds, he had reminded himself while sitting courtside. But now, for the first time in his life, Alcaraz realises that when pressure turns to anxiety, it triggers the fear of losing. And when that happens, body and mind seizes up.


Pressure and Performance in Elite Sports

‘While pressure’, as cricket umpire Simon Taufel, who knows all about handling intense pressure, writes in Finding the Gaps‘can create a diamond, it can also burst a pipe.’ In his young career, Carlos Alcaraz had never before experienced the bursting of that pipe. Now he does. 

Alcaraz is just one in a long list of elite sports persons at the top of their game who have succumbed to pressure at crucial moments. And often, as happened in his case, the travails of the mind have manifested themselves in physical immobility. 

Few instances spring faster to one’s mind than the heart wrenching image of a young Jana Novotna sobbing on the shoulders of the Duchess of Kent at Wimbledon.

It is 1993. On Centre Court, at the ladies singles final, Novotna is leading Steffi Graf 7-6, 1-6, 4-1. She is just one point away from taking a 5-1 lead in the final set. And then the pressure turns to anxiety. She double faults on serves and mis-hits overheads. Novotna’s fluid movements turn to jerky ones. Legs struggle to get to the ball. The  incredible hand eye coordination and ball sense that have brought her this far, desert her. Mind and body stop communicating. She loses the game and Graf goes on to win the final five games of the match and lifts the Grand Slam title. 

In 2001, Scott Boswell, a fast bowler for Leicestershire, comes up with a man-of-the-match performance in the semi-final and walks out for the final of the Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy at Lord’s. He is living the dream of every county cricketer, but one that is soon to be shattered. His second over in the final lasts 14 balls. All the extras came from wides. Midway through the over he finds he cannot go through the motion of bowling. The ball will not leave his hand. When he forces it to, he has no control over where it lands. The video today has over 1.5 million views. 

He speaks about it later: ‘I became so anxious I froze. I couldn’t let go. It was a nightmare. How can I not be able to run up and bowl – something that I’ve done for so many years without even thinking about it? How can that happen? What’s going on in my brain to stop me doing that, and to make me feel physically sick and anxious and that I can’t do something that I’ve just done so naturally? I didn’t have a process [to handle it] if something ever happened. It was just absolute panic.’ He only plays one more game of professional cricket his life. 

The Augusta Masters, 1996. Winning it  is the moment every professional golfer dreams of. In the opening round, Greg Norman, a man with 91 international titles to his name, shoots a course-record 63. He starts the final day on the verge of achieving what would be the crowning glory of his storied career, with a six-shot lead - the biggest in Masters history - over Nick Faldo. Norman then goes round the same 18 holes at Augusta National putting on a horror show that involves 78 embarrassing strokes. In the process he converts his lead into a five-shot deficit. Faldo walks away with the Masters. 

Pressure leads to anxiety. Anxiety breeds panic. Panic causes us to make bad decisions, or even worse, ties us up in decision making paralysis. In sport it can lose you the chance of a lifetime, or end your career. In business, the impact can reach far beyond the individual. If unchecked, paralysis by analysis as I like to call it, has the potential to bring down an entire unit, or even the firm, and put thousands of jobs at risk. 


Escaping the Negative Loop

So what’s the way out of this loop of negativity? 

Simon Taufel, who works with us at Two Roads on delivering Leadership insights to senior business leaders, talks about the process he followed while officiating the pressure cooker World Cup semi-final match between India and Pakistan at the 2011 World Cup:

‘I find I umpire best when I focus on my game, what I have to do, and keep my routines and processes simple. I try not to get distracted too much about what others are doing. [In that match] I trusted my instincts and abilities and got them right. I can’t remember what the scores were or who made runs or who took wickets. I was focused on respecting each ball and keeping it simple.’

He goes on to add: ‘I often think too many people overcomplicate the game. If I’m feeling too nervous or starting to overthink what might happen, I try to remind myself that it’s only a game, what could be the worst thing that can happen? This technique creates a better sense of perspective and reality, rather than the one playing out in my mind.’

Our resilience, as my colleague Manish Arneja of The Resilience Institute often reminds the corporate leaders we work with at Two Roads, is impacted by what’s playing out in our minds. The demons are not the ones we face, but the ones we create within us. We let pressure build until it reaches panic levels, because of a future we allow our minds to imagine, rather than the present that is actually playing out

Over two long decades, three men - Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, together dominated tennis in a way that remains unparalleled across sports. That dominance was driven not merely by their undeniable talent, fitness and dedication. These are traits many top athletes have to have to perform at this level. What made the 'Big 3' of tennis special was their ability to manage pressure, rather than allow the pressure to manage them. It won them 65 of the 76 Grand Slam tournaments they contested over that period. The Big 3 did not have all good days. They just managed the bad days better. 

As one of my bosses, sitting next to me once watching me have a meltdown on a pressure cooker day on the trading floor when all seemed lost, quietly reminded me - Anindyano one has died

Next time you feel the pressure closing in, at work, on stage during a performance, or on a tennis court, call on the inner Djokovic, Nadal, or Federer in you. And do it before either panic or decision making paralysis overtakes you. Remind yourself - no one has died.

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