Playoffs bring with them what I call the “dichotomy of pressure.” As teams continue to win in the playoffs or at a tournament, each coming game brings higher expectations, which generate more pressure for players to perform at a higher level. Yet the more players internalize (or feel) this extra pressure, the tighter they tend to become and, correspondingly, their performance is reduced.
This brings to mind a story about the great NBA coach Phil Jackson. The Chicago Bulls were just four seconds away from winning another championship — if they could score two more points. Jackson called a time-out when the Bulls had possession of the ball and reportedly told his players that he was going to pretend to draw a complicated play on his board to give their opponents something to think about. As he was doing that, he asked them which restaurant they wanted to celebrate at after they sunk the shot. Jackson was working expressly to keep his players loose and to help them to resist focussing on the pressure of the intense moment.
Understanding and managing the dichotomy of pressure is much broader than sport — it has life-long implications. When will we feel under the most pressure and yet the most in need of performing at our highest level? At a job interview! The game of hockey is the great accelerator of life. Understanding the principles that work in hockey gives us a head start towards understanding how to perform at our highest level in life.
The reason that high pressured situations create such internal angst is because the perception of what might happen changes our focus. High pressured situations get our brains focused on outcomes — thinking ahead towards “What if we lose?” This can become a vicious cycle because as we continue to think about what might happen, internal pressure increases. When players are playing their best hockey, their focus is in the moment, not on the potential outcome. John Wooden, the winningest Coach in NCAA Basketball College history said he doesn’t worry about winning and losing [outcomes]. He worries about practising the details that lead to the win [process]. This gives us great insight into how we can help our players, before and during high-pressured games, and to stay emotionally in the NOW, rather than focusing on OUTCOMES.
Much has been written about helping players stay “in the zone.” This place of maximum performance only comes when players are relaxed, empty and reacting. At times, however, coaches can internalize the pressure felt before high stakes games themselves. Because of this, they may feel the need to extra-prepare their team and dole out extra information with extra intensity. In these situations, it is equally important to understand and manage the dichotomy of pressure. To stay in the zone, players need to think less, concentrate less, and enjoy more flow. Coaches must continually resist the urge to counteract this requirement with over-preparation.
It was my great pleasure to play in 113 playoff games during my NHL career. Understanding how to be your best under extreme pressure is a process that is best learned through experience. Early in my NHL playoff experience I did not perform as well as I needed to. Those early playoff games came with the Montreal Canadiens. I had already internalized a large amount of pressure when I was traded from the Washington Capitals and arrived to the following headline in the Montreal Gazette: “Worst trade in NHL History!” The pressure I felt to meet high expectations was exacerbated as we headed into the first round of the playoffs. It’s no wonder we lost three games straight in the old best of five first-round format.
I learned how to perform under pressure by playing with veteran players like Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson and Bob Gainey. We handled high pressured situations lightly — with more humour and less intensity. Everyone knows that you MUST win, but understanding the dichotomy of pressure reveals the necessity of letting the energy flow, relaxing more and enjoying the process. Employing this concept during the 1980s allowed our Canadiens team to reap the ultimate hockey reward of winning a Stanley Cup in ‘86 and coming a close second in ‘89.
The “zone” is a fun place! It is a loose place! Staying in the zone (where you play your very best) is an enjoyable process of reacting — and not thinking. A famous sports psychologist‘s illustration has greatly helped me to understand the physiology of what happens when we are under pressure. If you place a 12-foot-long, eight-inch-wide piece of wood on the ground and ask one of your players to run across it, what happens? That player doesn’t even think twice. He or she says, “No problem,” and runs across the board with a big smile. If you take this same piece of wood and raise it eight feet high, then ask that same player to run across, what changes? The thought process of the player immediately moves to potential outcomes: “If I fall…” The player now slows down his or her process and thinks through each step and, consequently, under-performs.
Parents, coaches and players must all grow in their understanding of the dichotomy of pressure if they want to see their teams play up to their potential during tournaments and in the playoffs. The key question must move away from “What happens if we lose?” and towards “How we can keep our players in the moment, focused on the process, enjoying the competition, and in the zone?”
Sometimes you need to just go with the flow!