Since we’re getting down to the end of the baseball season and things are heating up, I think it might be an appropriate time to share my thoughts on playing in pressure situations. Dealing with the stress, tension, butterflies, sweaty palms, elevated heart beat, and shallow breath that comes with the territory of participating in sport. There’s no escaping it, if you’re an athlete, you WILL find yourself in these situations and it will be up to you how you handle them. It’s part of the reason we love athletics. There is something truly special about performing or watching people perform in these situations. I get the same feeling watching Tiger Woods sink a 20 foot double breaking putt to win a major as I do when I look at a Gauguin or Picasso in person. Its’s awe inspiring, its like the best that we can do as humans. When I’ve personally performed in these situations it’s almost like I’ve stepped outside of myself and when I come back, I’m forever changed. It’s the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. It’s great entertainment if we’re watching and can be life changing if we’re participating. By getting familiar with these situations, dealing with them, thriving in them, looking forward to them, we can transcend sport and improve our lives. By learning how to excel on the field we might be better equipped to deal with the pressure of tests in the classroom, or the anxiety of going on a date, or speaking in front of people, or taking your driving exam. Pressure is pressure and it’s part of life, like it or not.
We’ve all heard the saying, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Fight or flight. We used to have a saying in the big leagues “if you’re scared, get a dog.” At the highest levels, everyone can perform. Not everyone can perform when the game is on the line. I don’t have all the answers, all I can do is relay my experience and share how I dealt with these moments. Maybe it will ring true and help you deal.
The first thing I want to say is these pressure situations – the feelings, the sweaty palms, elevated heart beat, and butterflies – NEVER go away…no matter how long you play. You would think that after 15 major league opening days the butterflies would go away. Wrong. You would think that after the hundred and fiftieth time of coming up to bat with the game on the line my heartbeat wouldn’t be pounding. Wrong. You would think that after speaking in front of people thousands of times I wouldn’t be nervous. Wrong. For me, these feelings never go away. And that is the main point of my message. You see, I always took these elevated feelings as “wrong”. I figured that the elite either didn’t have these feelings or were strong enough mentally to push them down. I really felt deficient because no matter how hard I tried or how many times the pressure situation came up, I STILL FELT THOSE DAMN FEELINGS! Was I ever going to be the athlete with “ice-water” in his veins? Every time I came up with the game on the line, It was like a little Vietnam in my head trying to calm down. Then finally one day I gave up. I just gave up and said to myself screw it. It finally dawned on me – what was I fighting for? What exactly is the problem with a little extra sweat on my palms and a few extra heart beats? What expert said you can’t perform with this condition? And maybe, just maybe, these butterflies in my stomach don’t have teeth. Maybe they’re nice butterflies. Maybe these feelings are here for a reason. Instead of trying to get rid of them, maybe I can use them for my benefit! Maybe they’re a natural response that will actually help me by heightening my awareness. Maybe God didn’t make a mistake! And come to think of it, I thought, I’ve never actually heard any elite athlete say that he/she didn’t have these feelings…I just assumed.
So there it was, that was the turning point for me. That was the point where I stopped being scared and intimidated by these inevitable situations and finally began to thrive in them. That was the point where I went from wanting no part of the “game on the line” situation, to frothing at the mouth to have a chance. I simply accepted that these situations were part of sports, and the feelings that came with them were natural and something that I had no business fighting. I made friends with them, became familiar with them, and actually looked forward to the times when they would knock on my door.
I’m not saying that by adopting this attitude you’re gonna succeed more than you fail. Sports, especially baseball, are all about who fails the best. (If you can ONLY fail 7 out of 10 times YOU can hit .300 and be a millionaire!) I AM hoping these words and experiences will help you understand more and have more fun playing the sport you love. Good luck…have fun and play hard.