I think I speak for the majority of rugby-loving South Africans, when I say, it was close to impossible to sleep after last week’s nerve-wracking quarter final against France in the Rugby World Cup. I was afraid that I missed some of the brilliance of that game because I was so stressed about the all-important win, so I watched it again and I had one key takeaway: the power of pressure. There was an enormous amount of pressure in that 80 minutes of rugby.
But you don’t have to play rugby to understand pressure. We experience pressure every day in our personal lives, financial situations, work environments, etc. Pressure comes in the form of relationship strain, bereavement, challenges with children, a tough economic environment, employment-related stress, the burden of expectation… Other than the physical pressure and intimation of the rugby field, we deal with emotional pressure that depends on our current situation or stage of life. For teenagers, for instance, the pressure might come in the form of persuasion and peer pressure, for students and athletes in the form of expectation and for employees in the form of job load, performance and profit margins.
Uncharacteristic mistakes at a critical moment in the game can be blamed on the pressure from your opponents at that moment, but also on the pressure of expectation from your team, coach and supporters. Pressure can be the excuse for an unprecedented backwards kick! It can also be the reason for the referee’s contentious call. But then there is the saying about pressure turning coal into diamonds and it is true, sometimes we excel under pressure. Chasing down a goal kick, for instance, or outwitting and outplaying players twice your size. Being able to apply and absorb pressure is a valuable skill, but it doesn’t always come naturally to all of us.
What determines how we react to pressure?
Physically, our bodies release stress hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol when we are in stressful situations to assist us in coping with the threat. It brings a little edge to our attitude, making us more alert and even motivated. Our breathing might also become harder and quicker ensuring more oxygen-rich blood in our bodies. Seems like pressure can help us, doesn’t it?
According to an interesting article in Smithsonianmag.com, stress can be positive for most of us, enhancing our focus and performance. We sometimes see that type of focus in the performance of sports stars or entertainers despite the noise in the stadium or the size of the challenge. The problem arises when we experience continuous stress and pressure without time for our bodies to rebalance itself. Too much pressure affects our immune systems and because of persistent muscle tension, it can also lead to aches and pains, a stiff neck or shoulders and eventually migraines. It has negative cardiovascular effects and is often blamed for hypertension, heart attacks and strokes. It affects our endocrine system and how our bodies regulate anything from our mood to growth and reproduction. (Read more)
It is easier said than done, I know, but a sensible lifestyle is what we need to effectively deal with our daily pressures. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, moderate drinking habits and enough sleep are the obvious ways. According to mindtools.com, however, a proactive response to pressure can negate its negative effect and they give these pointers:
- Control. When you are in control of a situation, pressure can be very positive. It is when you feel out of control that anxiousness sets in.
- Confidence. Your ability can affect how you react to pressure. Address weak spots and enhance your ability to optimise your performance under pressure.
- Positive response. Tackle pressure head on (just be careful with the head, Springboks).
- Organisation. Control of your workload might feel impossible, but it is essential. Having an organised approach negates the pressure that chaos brings.
- Self-control. We might feel that this is one aspect we manage, but self-control is about more than keeping your cool in the scrum. It is also about not drinking too much after a stressful day or drowning your sorrows in carbs. Read this article about emotional intelligence for some handy tools for effective self-control.
- Energy. Relentless pressure can rob you of your energy. Find ways to energise yourself – some exercise, a healthy diet or even just your favourite music might help here.
- Help. I was perplexed when Rassie sent almost all his replacements onto the field at once, but what a help they were! Asking for help in time doesn’t imply that you are incompetent, it means you recognise that more or different skills or hands are required for you to perform at your best.
With another big game waiting for the Springboks, they can expect physical pressure, emotional stress and of course the weight of a country’s expectations. Being prepared for a game of such magnitude seems to be about much more than physical fitness, athletic ability and game insight. Absorbing such a combination of pressure in front of a jam-packed stadium requires you to have all your pressure-dealing boxes ticked. Let’s hope everyone in an armchair will also be able to deal with what promises to be a stressful Saturday evening!