Canadian sprinter Jared Connaughton admits that pressure has affected his performance at big events
in the past.
The pressure got to me
By Jared Connaughton
June 20, 2011
Pressure busts pipes.
I first heard this saying in February 2008. It was mid-afternoon, on Super Bowl Sunday. Fox Sports was interviewing New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan, who was known for his poignant one-liners in the media. I gave it no real thought, especially considering he was speaking about putting "pressure" on my favourite athlete of all time, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots.
After sitting through the most agonizing sporting event of my life, which ended with the heavily favoured and undefeated Patriots lose on a last-minute miracle drive by the Giants, I was left hurt, gut wrenched and a little confused. I reflected back on Strahan's prediction about pressuring Tom Brady, but mostly, I thought about that word: Pressure.
Was it pressure from the blitzing defence that stifled the great Brady and the Patriots, or was it the pressure of trying to become the first NFL team ever to finish a season 19-0? To this day the question haunts me, both as a fan and as an athlete. Is pressure real? Where does it come from?
With the Canadian track and field championships happening this week (June 22-25) at Foothills Athletic Park in Calgary, I reflect back on moments in my sporting life and think, has the pressure ever truly gotten to me before?
The answer is yes! Of course it has. Many times, come to think of it. At the 2008 Olympic trials, I was heavily favoured to capture the 100-metre title but faltered badly in the final and finished fifth. The next year, a similar thing happened, only this time it came in the 200m dash, my favourite event.
It also happened a few time when I was a collegiate athlete, and it even happened as a high schooler. But the most devastating occurrence came at the 2007 world championships in Osaka, Japan, where the "pressure" became so palpable that it led to a severe case of pre-race-jitters, which caused my hand (the relay target) to move so badly that my teammate Anson Henry couldn't cleanly exchange the baton, resulting in our team's last-place finish.
Was the pressure to perform that overwhelming? Where was the pressure coming from? Was it external, from a coach, teammates or parents? Or was it something deeper, something rooted in fear?
I've always loved playing sports, running, skating, jumping, kicking, throwing. Whatever the case may be, I love being a competitive athlete, though it hasn't always been a carefree ride. My father has insisted that I always give my best effort, and if not, then I'm wasting my God-given ability. That's a lot to handle as a 10-year-old, and that "pressure" often got to my head. I was afraid of letting him down.
In college, my coach used to playfully but earnestly threaten to cut my scholarship if I didn't score points for the team at the conference meets. That scared me, because I knew I'd never be able to afford university if it weren't for that scholarship. Again, fear.
What am I really "afraid" of? Will my life end if I don't perform up to an arbitrary athletic standard? No, of course not. I'm not a Roman Gladiator, my performance is not a matter of life and death. My parents, friends and family will still love me, failure be damned.
So here's my message to all athletes, in particular those that are competing this weekend in Calgary at the Canadian championships: don't give in to the fear, but embrace the opportunity.
In most track stadiums, there are a few thousand seats, but only eight lanes, so it's a privileged few who get to compete. Quit trying to run away from fear - simply run! Run (or jump or throw) because it brings you joy, because it makes you proud of yourself, because it's an opportunity to remove your mind from everyday trivial matters and just be free.
I don't know much. I'm not a psychologist. But take it from a guy who's tried too hard for fear of failure - often 110 per cent effort results in an 80 per cent outcome.
Relax, have fun, and remember: this is supposed to be fun!