Every competitive athlete I’ve known and worked with will eventually ask about the most important question in sports, “How do I have fun when I play?” This seemingly harmless and benign query concerns the ultimate secret to winning, so let us have a go at answering it.,
The sport I follow most closely is golf, and over the last four weeks the value of experiencing pressure as fun was emphasized by two of the winners. Patrick Cantlay won at Memorial and has been mentored by Jack Nicklaus himself, a guy who knows a lot about winning. Cantlay was asked in his post-win interview how he managed all the pressure and he openly admitted, “Mr. Nicklaus talked to me about closing out tournaments by consciously pausing when I was on 16 tee just to look around at the crowd and to embrace the joy of the moment.” He went on to say that he consciously tried to enjoy the golf all day long and that it relaxed him enough to win.
The other golfer who won big by embracing the pressure was Gary Woodland, who took the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. In the post tournament press conference he told us, “Throughout the day, I tried to be open to the majestic beauty of Pebble Beach and the ocean as it came rolling in.” And you will not find a more beautiful setting anywhere in the world than the fairways and cliffs of Pebble Beach on the Monterey Peninsula.
I think the reason that the meshing of fun and pressure is so difficult is that it presents a profound paradox. Precisely how is one expected to “enjoy the moment” when the entire world is watching you and when winning means an extra $10 million in your bank account?
I recall a time many years ago while working with a player who was in the lead in the U.S. Open after three rounds. The crush of pressure is deep at this moment and he could not get to sleep at all, especially after his agent called him on Saturday night to tell him a win would mean a new $15 million endorsement deal. Now you try to go out and “enjoy” the final round.
It is a truism that pressure and fun are paradoxical twins that don’t seem to belong in the same room. Pressure implies words like anxiety, dread, fear and tension whereas fun implies words like relaxation, enjoyment and pleasure.
However, I think there is one area of psychological research that helps us to unlock the key to this paradox. I recall when in graduate school my professor, Dr. Fred Levine, suggested that old psychology theory would say humans always seek out peace, contentment and calmness. He then went on to point out that many people seek out excitement, adventure and risk, and told us to visit an amusement park and look at a roller coaster for proof. There are long lines that lead to the scariest roller coaster, and the customers were not seeking calmness but rather high-risk excitement.
We are all thrill-seeking creatures and there is no greater thrill than attempting to win a golf tournament, a baseball game or a tennis match. And the question remains how to do it.
To be a high-level winner in any sport you will need talent, good coaching, a solid work ethic, and perseverance. And on the psychological side you will need the following three things:
1. A good defensive system or a coat of armor which will shield you from all the pressure and vagaries of the game. Traditional sport psychology has spent most of its time trying to help in this area alone. And they tend to focus on solid preparation, positive self-talk, visualization, hypnosis, etc.
2. A strong ego or self-belief is another major area that the winner must develop so that they expect to win, feel they deserve to win, and have no guilt about the same.
3. The third trait the winner must have relates to having fun under pressure. It is crucial to come to an understanding that thrills, risk taking and pressure are exactly the reasons athletes are drawn to their sport and this is an operational definition of the word “fun.” Not a lot of research has been developed in this area, but we are now seeing the term being bandied about more and more by the competitive athlete: “I am trying to enjoy the round.”
The reason sports are so much fun is because they produce pressure that we are challenged to deal with. Much of life can be spent in avoiding pressure and that means much of life can be boring. Our modern-day heroes are the athletes because they are the ones who bravely step up to the plate with bat in hand and swing away, knowing full well that in a single moment they can become our hero or our goat. They will then be faced with either cheers or boos and the winners are the ones who pause before stepping into the batter’s box and embrace the moment of truth in all its glory. That is exactly what I call fun.