I was introduced to the concept of pressure in the early 1950’s when my dad and I arrived home at the end of a cold January afternoon watching the Clarets lose one nil to Huddersfield at Turf Moor, a game they were expected to win.
Whatever pressure the players had felt themselves to be under paled into insignificance matched against the pressure that had forced the lid off my mum’s new fangled pressure cooker and deposited our tea all over the kitchen ceiling.
Pressure is a word we hear a lot of these days, which is more than you can say for pressure cookers. Ours was consigned to the dustbin.
Jamie Redknapp once said that he’d felt pressured every day as a footballer and watching his dad, ‘Arry twitch his way through a game, one might almost think it was a family trait. At least ex-player Jamie doesn’t have to face the pressure any more, unless he gets a bit tense modelling clothes for Marks and Spencer’s.
Liverpool’s late, great, Bill Shankly, a man made of sterner stuff had a different attitude.
“”Pressure is not the European Cup, “ growled Shanks,” Or the Championship, or the Cup Final, those are the rewards. Pressure is working down the pit, pressure is having no work at all.”
What he was saying, of course, is that champions are able to do what they do best under stress, that pressure is a normal part of the game. In the end it’s how a team responds to it that counts.
Often pressure is self-inflicted and is linked to two things, which at first glance seem to be opposites. They’re not; they’re just two sides of the same coin, the fear of failure and the fear of success. Both of which can prevent a team from playing to the best of their ability.
But failure as a learning process can be a great teacher. You fail, you win, you learn, you grow.
Fear of failure is a waste of time.
Fear of success is too and it can be just as inhibiting to a team. Success brings its own responsibilities and some teams bend under the apparent weight of it.
One thing is certain, without pressure there would be no rewards and over a season or two, the teams who cope with it best are the ones who win more often than they lose, who come back from defeats, who make the play-offs, or gain promotion.
They’re the ones who think they can win.
Every team that’s done something worthwhile is a team that has collectively overcome their nerves, who deal with the pressures of failure and success.
Pressure presents teams with an opportunity to excel, an environment in which preparation and training meets with the chance of coming out on top.
What’s more, the old chestnut really is true; “It’s only one game at a time.” There’s nearly always another chance.
When footballers, like all public performers, learn to rise above their fears of failure and success and as a result maybe touch greatness on match days, they raise our hearts because, in a way perhaps, they remind us that we all have a bit of greatness tucked away inside of us.
We’re all dreamers; fans, players, managers, coaches, backroom staff, even those sometimes maligned ones in the board room who are fans just like the rest of us.
We all feel the pressure as we kick and head every ball.
But what we want from our footballing heroes (sometimes unfairly) is for them to embrace the pressure and run with it, have fun even, keep tackling, keep passing, keep shooting and above all, believe in themselves.
An American coach once said that pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.
Most players do, it’s only those twin apparitions, fear of failure and fear of success that sometimes get in the way.
Pressure? Bring it on. Enjoy it. As tennis champion Billie Jean King said, “Pressure is a privilege.”
Cricketer, Keith Miller, who in his time was regarded as Australia’s greatest all-rounder, served as a fighter pilot in World War 2, flying combat missions over Germany, was once asked a question about match day pressure.
Miller responded, “ Pressure? I’ll tell you what pressure is. Pressure is having a Messerschmitt up your arse. Playing sport is not.”
(Published in Burnley Football Club’s match day programme, 26th February 2013)