We’ve heard the term “nerves” used several times in reference to sport and other forms of activities.
When we use the term “nerves of steel,” we are referring to a mindset where it is the courage that enables athletes to perform in the face of anxiety, difficulty, extreme pressure, fear or danger.
Some athletes who excel in critical situations become highly touted for their ability to steady their “nerves” in the heat of battle. These athletes often attain heroic and mythical status. We have seen this with Michael Jordan, Brian Lara, Tiger Woods and other cricketers in these amazing T20 (Twenty20) death overs.
Some may argue that it hasn’t necessarily been a feature of Leo (Lionel) Messi, for despite all his great attributes he hasn’t actually lived up to the “nerves of steel” quality due to his failure to lead Argentina over the finish line in more than one final. I still think he is awesome though.
I would make reference to someone like Stern John, who after missing a penalty in the first half in what was this country’s most important World Cup qualifier to that day against Mexico in October 2005, persisted to bounce back with two goals to help take T&T into the playoff with Bahrain.
Then we had Dennis Lawrence, Dwight Yorke and the rest of the squad holding onto a 1-0 lead for what was one of the most nerve-wracking 40-plus minutes ever played out by a T&T team with a World Cup spot at stake. Imagine Lawrence having to lead the defence for those gruelling minutes with literally everything at stake in the heat of the moment. Remember that Kelvin Jack breathtaking save in added-on time?
It is believed that these type of athletes possess some unique inner characteristic that causes them to deal with performance anxiety and thrive during pressure-packed games.
Then there’s those with the “bundle of nerves". They are the ones who choke under pressure. These athletes can’t handle performance anxiety and thus falter for a number of reasons. The difference between “nerves of steel” and a “bundle of nerves” is up for interpretation. How you interpret your emotions will greatly affect your mind, body and performance.
At the precise moment a footballer executes a kick, a bowler delivers or a basketballer shoots, the outcome is unknown. The stress that sport provides, therefore, is inevitably linked with its inherent uncertainty. Sport is a cultural focal point because it is a theatre of unpredictability.
While stress and uncertainty may motivate some athletes, they induce anxiety in others. And this also includes the fans who are viewing. Not only are they nervous but the expectations of the thousands of viewers play a big part in the impact it has on the athlete. The absence of fans at sporting events during this pandemic, while being seen as a major setback regarding the atmosphere at venues, it could perhaps relieve some of the anxiety experienced by the athletes. Maybe it could also affect their performance in that it now requires less “nerves of steel.” That’s up for debate.
Some studies of the home advantage phenomenon show that teams playing at their home venue win on average, around 55-65 per cent of the time depending on the sport. The impressive medal count of host nations during the Olympic Games is also notable, in particular the record-breaking haul of medals won by Australia in Sydney (2000) and by Greece in Athens (2004).
British sports psychologist Graham Jones developed a model of competition anxiety that has been widely used in the last decade. Jones contends that it is the perception of our ability to control our environment and ourselves that determines the anxiety response. Hence, if you believe you can cope in a particular sporting situation, you will tend to strive to achieve your goals with positive expectations of success. Having positive expectations will invariably mean that you will be more confident and therefore more likely to perform close to your best. This goes not only for athletes but could also be referenced to those sitting in the boardrooms, technical areas and offices.
The performance anxiety we sometimes feel are most times kept a secret. Although many suffer from it, this internal battle is usually hidden in an attempt to avoid a weak image. Mardy Fish withdrew from his fourth round match with Roger Federer due to anxiety attacks leading up to the clash at the 2012 US Open. He came back three years later after fighting with anxiety to compete at the same tournament, eventually opening up, on his experience in an article in the Players Tribune.
“To show weakness, we’re told, in so many words, is to deserve shame. But I am here to show weakness. And I am not ashamed," Fish said.
So even if we don't all have "Nerves of Steel" it's worth it to face your fears and keep pushing.
Shaun Fuentes is the head of TTFA Media. He is a former FIFA Media Officer at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa and currently a CONCACAF Competitions Media Officer. The views expressed are solely his and not a representation of any organisation.