18 June 2017

Combatting Pressure: A Three Step Approach to Avoid ‘Choking’

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

Another global tournament, another humiliating early exit from South Africa as the Proteas once again succumbed to pressure and played far below their usually high standards. But fear not; this will not be an exploration of that crushing defeat to India but rather a viable solution to any athlete or team struggling with the vice grip of pressure.

 Faf du Plessis is crestfallen as his middle stump is removed in South Africa's crushing defeat to India and subsequent elimination from the 2017 Champions Trophy.

Faf du Plessis is crestfallen as his middle stump is removed in South Africa's crushing defeat to India and subsequent elimination from the 2017 Champions Trophy.

Few things, if any, are guaranteed in elite sport but there was almost an air of inevitability as South Africa’s Proteas crashed out of another global tournament despite possessing a clutch of superstar players and starting the event as the number one ranked team in the world.

It wasn’t that South Africa lost to both Pakistan and India, the two sides that would go on to contest the final of the 2017 Champions Trophy, or indeed that the men in green and gold failed to hit their straps. It was the manner of the defeat that rankled supporters who have now become accustomed to dramatic periods of self-destruction from their beloved team. The run-out of David Miller against India, where both he and Faf du Plessis raced each other and dived into the same crease while the bails at the other end were removed, will join the pantheon of embarrassing mishaps that have become all too common over the years.

Whether or not you ascribe the tag of ‘chokers’ to Ab de Villiers’ men, the undeniable truth is the pressure of the situation clearly impacted their performances as usually assured and confident athletes made uncharacteristic mistakes.

For Tom Dawson-Squibb, a high-performance coach who founded Headstart Sport in 2010 and has worked with elite athletes in Super Rugby, the Premier Soccer League and elite golfers and tennis players, the tag ‘choke’ is a misnomer and is too simplistic a phrase:

“Most people describe the term as snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and the Proteas did not do that against India,” Dawson-Squibb says. “But there is no doubt that they displayed behaviours that were sub-optimal and they were clearly affected by the situation. Either way, it’s not important how we describe what happened. What is more important for me is to come up with a solution.”

Admittedly an ambitious task and Dawson-Squibb points out that any mental conditioning expert worth his salt would fancy a crack at the Gordian knot that is South African cricket. And while he opines that there “is nothing worse than an outsider who thinks he has a solution”, he shares his blueprint for combatting the effects of pressure.

Dawson-Squibb’s ‘Triple A’ approach is a three step strategy that can apply to all athletes, coaches or managers in pressurised situations and can combat the symptoms that manifest as a result, such as poor judgement and uncharacteristic behaviours.

It starts with acknowledge: “The greatest inhibitor to change is an avoidance of truth”, Dawson-Squibb says. “We convince ourselves that everything is OK when in actual fact, subconsciously, we know things are not right.”

In elite sport, bravado and ego are two key contributors to success but can act as inhibitors to the first step in Dawson-Squibb’s model. After all, if an athlete believes he/she is the right person for the job, wouldn’t an acknowledgement of nerves or self-doubt counter all the confidence that is required to execute on the big stage?

For Dawson-Squibb, ego is a tool that must be used in the right context. “I don’t want my fast bowler bowling the final over of a match without ego,” he says. “I want that bowler fired up and confident that there is no one else on the planet that would be better equipped to perform in that situation. However, there is a time to leave ego at the door and to be comfortable with vulnerability. This has to happen before game day.”

This is easier said than done. As Dawson-Squibb says, “If you’re a coach and a player comes to you and admits to self-doubt, would you play them?”

Acknowledging that the situation one is in is filled with pressure and has a lot riding on it does not necessarily feed the monster of self-doubt. In the same way that a doctor cannot combat illness without first diagnosing the malady, an elite athlete or coach cannot hope to combat the effects of pressure without first taking acknowledging its existence.

Once that has taken place, you can move on to acceptance: “A lack of confidence can spread like a disease if it is not acknowledged and if that is the case, no one will accept that that they are encountering something that is causing them to behave differently.”

Dawson-Squibb says that senior players need to take ownership of the narrative and accept that this is a difficult situation that the team has found itself in. That can start with a simple phrase: “Wow, I’m feeling really nervous, how’s everyone else feeling?” The coach or captain need to create a space where vulnerability is seen as a normal emotional response but that takes time.

When acknowledging that pressure exists and then accepting that it real and happening to you and your team, then you can move on to the final step of Dawson-Squibb’s approach which is advance: “Our brains are like computers,” he says. “When we experience pressure it’s like we have a whole lot of tabs open at once and it slows our processing abilities down. Once we have acknowledged what is going on and accepted it we can advance to stage where we start closing some tabs.

“The ‘what if I fail tab’, or the ‘I hope I don’t let my country down’ tab. Then we can only keep open the tabs that are necessary to perform the job at hand and find a headspace that is conducive to that task.”

Dawson-Squibb boils down each individual’s performance to one variable. In a massive high school rugby derby, the home team’s flyhalf admitted to Dawson-Squibb that he was feeling nervous ahead of the game and that his kicking in practice had been below par.

Dawson-Squibb asked a simple question: “What is the one thing that you focus on, above all others, that ensures you’re kicking at your best.” The one athlete said that when everything is working he can see his laces strike the ball.

“That’s all you’re going to focus on,” Dawson-Squibb said. “Forget the 10 000 crowd people, forget your follow through, forget where you place your standing leg. All you’re going to focus on is the one, seemingly small variable that is the foundation for all your success.” As you can probably guess, the young flyhalf kicked 9 of his 10 shots at goal and won the match for his team.

By condensing high performance to a single event and focussing entirely on it, athletes can accept that there are certain variables that are beyond their control but they are still the masters of their own destinies.

Ab de Villiers might not be able to hit every ball past the fielder or he might face a delivery that is simply too good but he can control whatever small contributor to his optimal performance acts as the springboard for everything else in his arsenal.

“When we’re feeling pressure, when we have too many tabs open, we can lose sight of the small things that have got us here in the first place,” Dawson Squibb says. “Ego is a double edged sword because we all need it to feel confident in the moment but ego often neglects the small things and instead turns our attention to the big picture.

“We have to accept that there is going to be fear, there is going to be doubt and there is going to be pressure. But we have to remind ourselves that our teammates back us (otherwise we wouldn’t be entrusted in that position) and that no matter what happens, our loved ones will be there for us. Sometimes you can do everything to the best of your ability but you’ll still be on the losing end. That’s sport. Acknowledge that, accept that and only then can you advance.”

Dawson-Squibb, like every single fan of South African cricket, has a lot of sympathy for the Proteas right now. He admits that his is not a one size fits all model and that it would take months, even years to understand the cause of the continued capitulation in global events.

However, he hopes that this simple approach could provide an avenue of insight for an individual or two within the camp. After all, if high performance can be boiled down to a single variable, shifting collective mind-sets within a national organisation could start with just a single mind cluttered with a host of open tabs.