Ahead in the Count

How do you Handle Pressure?

Many thanks to friend and former teammate, Dan Rouhier, for this guest post. Danny played baseball at George Washington University and is now a professional comedian based in NYC. Check him out at www.funnydanny.com.

How do you Handle Pressure?

It’s a common topic for sports reporters, columnists, and talking heads on nightly highlight shows.  You can also hear it in locker rooms, team buses, the post-game buffet, and even in the darkest reaches of fandom from the bleachers to living rooms.  ‘______ is clutch’, ‘________ always chokes’, ‘________ has never won anything in his whole life and is named A-Rod’ etc.

Cliff Lee

Cliff Lee's preparation breeds confidence

To the casual observer, this seemingly nebulous quality of strong performances in the most important moments is hard to quantify.  Either a guy has it or doesn’t have it.  Some used to have it and don’t, others didn’t but then got it, and this other guy named Eli Manning is just lucky.  To most fans and even players, clutch performers are just guys that have an innate ability to rise to the occasion and that’s all there is to it.  But is this really true?

After his dominant performance in Game 1 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, Phillies starter Cliff Lee was asked how he seemed so calm out there in this, the most pressured of environments, and he said (paraphrasing here. Apologies for not being able to find the exact quote) ‘I don’t really get nervous.  The reason you work so hard is to prepare you for games like this.  I trust my preparation and that gives me confidence.’

I wish every young athlete in America had seen that and taken it to heart.  I really believe this is one of the most important lessons for a young athlete as he or she advances in her career.  Your preparation gives you confidence.  We’ll get back to that.

First, let’s talk about pressure.  What is pressure?  You can’t touch it, hear it, or taste it (unless you count that ‘chalky-mouth’ taste that you sometimes get; where it feels like your haven’t produced any saliva since Reagan was president).  But why then can it have such a dramatic affect on our performance?  Pressure, without getting too scientific, is a manifestation of our most basic animal instincts.  The famed ‘fight or flight’ response that you hear about while watching National Geographic is the same force that causes us to feel pressure.  Your heart rate increases, you sweat, your senses are heightened, your muscles tighten and adrenaline pumps through your body.  This comes whether we like it or not.  The same sensation that took over a caveman when he wandered into a Sabre tooth Tiger’s lair is the same feeling that a 12 year old gets when he’s on the mound in a bases-loaded, full-count, 2-out, tie-game, bottom of the last inning situation.  So how do we deal with it?  How do we stare down the beast and throw a strike?

Here is where preparation comes in.  Cliff Lee can close his eyes and see himself running back in February when no one else is around.  He can think back to the hundreds of bullpens, the hours of exercises, and the time digesting the scouting reports.  Cliff can take a deep breath and remember all of his hard work and know, with 100% confidence, that he is prepared for this moment.  Can you?  You are the only one who knows if you gave everything you had.  You can get by on 90%, and sometimes even less in practice.  You can take a rep or 2 off and no one will notice.  But then, when the game is on the line, what can you call upon to calm the chaos surrounding you?  What will you think back on?

A great coach once told me: ‘Clutch is born of preparation and opportunity’.  I really believe this.  As a player, before games, I would always remind my teammates of the hard work we had put in.  We challenged each other and didn’t let one another slack.  Those times are what gave us the strength to succeed and help us believe that we could accomplish our goals.  As a coach, I try to instill that same confidence into my players.  If you worked hard and did everything you could to be the best player you can be, you should feel ready to handle the most pressure packed moment.  When you sense that moment, when the opposing fans are rattling the fences, that’s when you can take a breath and hopefully call upon your preparation to quiet the storm.

The reason some of us gravitate towards youth coaching is that we believe sports can be an incredible teacher, chock full of life lessons at every turn.  Performing in a pressure spot translates into the world outside of sports.  In my life, every job interview I’ve had or performance in front of hundreds or audition in front of 3 sets of judgmental eyes has been a breeze.  Why?  Because I stood in against Angels starter Joe Saunders and hit a ball so hard off of him, it attempted to apologize.  I also struck out to end the game against an 88 mph Brad Lidge slider that I have still never seen.  The point is, after those occasions and others like them, everything else is a cake walk.  Hard work breeds confidence.

Thanks for reading!

Guest post by Dan Rouhier.

November 2, 2009 - Posted by | On the Field | , , , , , , ,

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