Under pressure you don’t rise to the occasion; you sink to the level of your training, writes Dr Ed Coughlan.
To win while playing your best when the pressure is at its greatest is a notoriously difficult thing to do in elite sport.
Contrary to popular belief, you are never ‘handed it’, you must take it and, more importantly, deserve the right to take it.
Francesco Molinari did just that at the weekend when winning his home tournament at the Italian Open on the European Golf Tour. The resilience and work that goes before such an achievement is incalculable but not untraceable.
Following successive successful Ryder Cups in 2010 and 2012 his form deserted him. He fell from being inside the top 15 in the world rankings to outside the top 80 and tournament wins became a thing of the past.
For those who work in golf or even those who just follow it, they will be aware of the critical decision Molinari made in recent seasons.
Dissatisfied with the downward trajectory of his career he finally shouted ‘stop’ and looked to a way to improve. Not through gadgets and trickery but through application and structure.
Which led to him working with a skill acquisition coach in the guise of Dr Dave Alred, known more for his kicking coaching prowess with Jonny Wilkinson than his capacity to hole out from six-feet in professional golf. But, like all skill acquisition specialists, Alred is a practice coach — in simple terms, he devises sessions that are meaningful and transfer to the performance setting.
He doesn’t need to have won a major on the greens of Augusta to be able to help Molinari. He needs imagination, creativity and an appreciation you have to practise under pressure to be able to perform under pressure.
Molinari had earned the right to take on grandstand shots in Sunday’s final round, because he had practised those shots. He had developed robust processes, mechanisms and strategies to stay in the moment and remain calm when things were not going his way.
He had learned to stick to the script of taking one shot at a time and only taking calculated risks. Not just through mindless repetition, but through context-filled sessions that heaped pressure and consequence on every rep, in every set, every time.
His story reminds me a lot of that of LeBron James following the loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA finals in the summer of 2011. Again, the disgruntlement of falling short drove an already world-class athlete to push beyond himself and get outside his comfort zone so that the next time around, he would have the skills required to get his team over the line.
He went to Houston in the off-season between 2011 and 2012 to be coached and mentored on how to play the low-post position more effectively by the greatest low-post player ever, Hakeem Olajuwon.
The result, more low-post plays and attention required from the opposition to now contain the triple-threat player who could pass, shoot and drive. He and his Miami Heat team-mates went on to win the next 2 NBA championships and the rest, as they say, is history.
Speaking of history, Sunday’s All-Ireland final drawn match between Dublin and Mayo was supposed to be history in the making. Yet it remains history in waiting.
If Dublin were to win, they would have made history as the first Dublin team to retain the title in almost 40 years.
If Mayo were to win, it would have been the first win for the county in 65 years which would have put them on top of the list for the longest gap between successful All- Ireland titles.
For many it will be remembered as the All- Ireland final where one team outscored the other by 12 points and still ended up drawing the game as a result of two own-goals.
For me, it will be remembered as the final where some players lost their heads, went off script and played against the percentages. It was a fascinating final in many ways, with two top-class managers competing against each other through their top-class players.
And for the most part, there were outstanding performances within both teams.
However, there were key moments from both Mayo and Dublin players when they decided to take the grandstand shot for glory at the wrong time. Instead of finding the players with significantly better percentages in front of the posts who were free to execute and keep the scoreboard ticking over.
In the 2013 All-Ireland hurling final between Clare and Cork, Domhnall O’Donovan, a corner back who had never scored for his county in the championship, took a wild, unsighted strike at the posts from an impossible angle out on the touchline to score an incredible point to draw the game and bring it to a replay. A replay they duly won.
That is a time to go off script, because time was up, in fact, the already added two minutes of injury time was also up so there is a perfect example of a moment to justify trying the impossible.
But there was no evidence of such justification throughout the game on Sunday when players on both teams took pot shots from impossible angles and outrageous distances in incredibly difficult weather conditions.
When momentum is such a critical factor in close, low-scoring matches, you have to go to your players that deserve the right to take the big shots. Players like Dublin’s Paddy Andrews could be seen practising the scores he made in the game during the warm-up.
The same can be said for Mayo’s Alan Dillon who scored 4 out of 4 in his pre-game routine from the exact position he scored a critical point during the game.
Moreover, your position on the field shouldn’t matter if the work is done. Dublin’s Brian Fenton and Mayo’s Donie Vaughan, neither of them forwards, have consistently shown they deserve the right to take a shot when it’s on. Other players however, were found out and badly so.
The question now becomes, which team has more players deserving of victory, as there are no hiding places at the top.
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