The big challenge in any performance environment is to be able to deliver when it counts. Whether it is in sport, medicine, the military, the theatre, or in music the ability to do it when it counts is of fundamental importance.
Coping with the associated pressure in these environments is an important aspect of this ability to perform. But, in order to cope with this pressure you need to first understand where pressure comes from. All pressure is ultimately an internal construct, dependent on how you feel about the situation. Do you care what others think? What happens if you lose? What is the impact upon your reputation? Is there a threat of physical harm? What do the crowd think?
In professional sport there is significantly increased pressure as there are many more people who have a vested interest in you and your performance. This can range from a couple of people (such as your direct family) to millions of people (such as the population of a country). This last point brings me to the Indian national cricket team. I was lucky enough to attend the 3rd day of the 2nd test match between India and England in Mumbai recently. The experience was very different to the experiences that I have had watching cricket in England. There were around 20,000 supporters in the ground, and they resembled a football crowd rather than a cricket crowd. When the opening pair of Indian batters came out at the start of their second innings the noise was deafening, and the roar when any Indian batter scored runs was very loud. This contrasted significantly with the complete silence that descended when the Indian team lost a wicket. The tension in the crowd was palpable each time and a genuine sense of frustration and anger grew in the crowd. Also, just to add some context the Indian crowds are kept securely behind security fences and pits with barbed wire in. Now you might think this is overkill, but talking to some locals I found out that this is due to the fact that the crowd have a tendency to throw bottles and stones at the players if they are not playing well, they don’t just simply heckle! In India if you are playing well you are almost like a god (and worshipped), but if you are playing badly you are public enemy number one.
All of this means that the Indian team will be under significant pressure in the 3rd test on the 5th December in Calcutta. They were not supposed to lose to England, and definitely were not expecting the English spinners to out-bowl the Indian spinners. In the media since the game the future of half the Indian team has been debated (including the great Sachin Tendulkar), the effectiveness of the bowlers questioned and the captain criticised for his tactics. The Indian team also appears to be a victim of their own public’s demands. Before the series began it was being dubbed the ‘revenge series’ where India were planning to win the series 4-0 to make amends for their 5-0 whitewash against England, in England. So, the pitches they are playing on have been prepared for results (to ensure one team will definitely win). Most teams would have made sure that they didn’t lose the second test rather than looking to win it easily.
So, the Indian team are under a significant amount of pressure in the next test. England have finally overcome a significant mental barrier by winning a test match in India, also their bowling attack appears to be stronger and the batting unit appears to be in better form. Couple this with the significant expectation and anger coming from the fans and you can see that India are under significant pressure for the next game. So, if they manage to win the game they will have not only overcome the opposition, but also have overcome the expectations and anger of millions of Indian cricket fans. So, while pressure might be an internal construct managing all of these factors and just getting on and playing the game will be a significant challenge.