In a few hours, 80 or so football players not named Tom Brady will take part in the single most consequential event of their lives. (Brady just has Super Bowl week permanently marked as “busy” in calendar).
If they make a big play, it may be remembered for generations, replayed thousands of times, and all people who associate themselves with a certain metropolitan area will want to hug them and buy them a drink until they die.
If they make an egregious error in a crucial moment, they may spend the remainder of their lives to trying escape the shame, and may seek to redefine themselves by adopting a cause or investing in an organic farm.
This is not an exaggeration. Ask Scott Norwood and Adam Vinatieri. Ask Lorenzo Charles and Chris Webber. Ask Bill Buckner.
Only a rare few even understand the weight of such a moment.
The question is, how can the human mind process that level of pressure? Better yet, how does it (since we see athletes manage to do it so often)?
The fact is, for all the examples we have of athletes who have crumbled under the pressure, it is still a small percentage. Most athletes manage to at least perform somewhere in their typical performance range (which, if they are on such a stage, is world-class). How do they avoid panic? How do their shaking hands grip the ball?
The answer is as mundane as is it surprising: ROUTINE.
In Bounce, author and former world champion table tennis player Matthew Syed outlines how even in low or no pressure situations, high level athletics virtually require habituated responses.
Regardless of the sport, at the highest levels, things move too fast (think team sports like soccer, basketball, football) or are too complex in terms of fine motor (think golf or tennis) for athletes to be actively thinking about everything they are doing.
So the athletes train for thousands of hours, and learn to trust their trained responses, paying attention to a small handful cues in the heat of the moment. If it looks easy, it’s because for them, it is.
For normals like the rest of us, it’s like approaching a set of stairs and deciding which foot to land on the first step. It’s actually a fairly miraculous act of balance, coordination and information processing, one that babies take years to learn, and that is incredibly hard to program an algorithm to do, but you do it while texting your mother, because you have practiced responding to an approaching staircase every day for decades.
Still, allowing trained responses to flow in high level, high stakes competition is not easy, because as much as the athlete attempts to just focus on the simple cues and trust his training, many other thoughts and distractions can interfere. And the higher stakes, the harder to avoid the thoughts.
This is where routine comes in.
Elite athletes don’t just practice skills. They practice entire processes. Watch baseball players between pitches. Watch the elaborate pre-putt routine of a golfer. Watch olympic athletes preparing for a race, checking every inch of equipment and apparel, closing their eyes and mentally rehearsing every second of race.
This stuff is more than superstition or psyching oneself up; it is the result of years creating an entire mental and physical universe where only trained responses live, and purposely stepping into that universe. And it is the athlete’s best defense against nerves, distraction, or anything else that might potentially interfere with doing what he is trained to do.
Neurons in the brain learn to fire together and in sequence with training, so by linking behaviors together over and over, we build very sticky sets of habits where the end result we want–the clean swing, the made free throw, the correct read of the zone defense–is the very likely end result of an entire chain of events we have practiced thousands of times.
When you see a player getting into a routine, he or she is deliberately passing through the gateway of a very sticky routine, a whole universe of attentional states, neural linkages, and grouped actions. If it looks like a “zone,” well, that’s not far from the truth.
If you hear player who makes a crucial interception in the Super Bowl say “I didn’t even hear the crowd,” it’s at worst only a mild exaggeration. He has trained his attention, over thousands of trials, to be one-hundred percent on the eyes of the quarterback and the spacing of the receivers at that moment, and crowd noise simply wasn’t part of his attentional universe.
The irony of being high level athlete is that the key to stepping up on the biggest stage of your life is making sure that your brain and your body act like they have every other day of your athletic life.
What’s possibly even more ironic is how truly difficult that can be to accomplish.