You can’t practice pressure

In the European Cup this week, the England v Italy quarter final and the Spain v Portugal semi-final have been decided by penalty kicks in which  a player is asked to put the ball on a spot and kick it past a goalkeeper into a goal (or not).

In this way, rather than a contest of skill, the ‘game’ becomes more of a mental ordeal whereby the penalties continue until one player cracks under pressure and fails to score.

Players have ‘choked’ in other sports too. In his book Bounce, Matthew Syed explored the theory that all you need is up to 10,000 hours practice to reach a level where the motor mechanisms in your body become automatic.

Surely, when under pressure to perform in an environment and atmosphere that you simply cannot practice, you need think smarter too?

I am no footballer, but I wonder how many of these players, when faced with a level of pressure that they cannot possibly practice, have really thought through what might happen? Are they mentally, as well as physically, prepared? To me, it seems not.

In my own life, I can remember two occasions when I have felt under a pressure I could not practice.

The first was when WPP bought Ogilvy at the time I was managing the Thailand office. Soon after the takeover, Sir Martin Sorrell and his team swept round the Asian offices and I, as a relatively young ad man, was faced with a nerve-wracking presentation to one of the sharpest financial brains in the world.

I remember going home the night before. The presentation was fixed. I knew all my words. But what was this guy going to ask me? What hadn’t I thought of? Where were the holes?

Luckily, I pinpointed three potential questions, two of which were thrown at me by Sir Martin. Without hesitation, I looked him in the eye and gave him my answers.

I passed the test (I wasn’t fired).

The other time was when I read the eulogy at my father’s funeral, the hardest thing I have been asked to do. The night before, I tried to think through all the things that might happen other than my failing to keep emotional control.

What, for example, what would I do if someone’s telephone went off at my most emotionally vulnerable moment?

Well that’s exactly what happened. And I had my answer:

‘If that’s Dad, please tell him I miss him.’

About Hugh Salmon

Business leader. Adman. Writer.
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