Headmaster’s Assembly – 3 January 2017

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Free throws, fielders, penalties and two foot putts

As you may have guessed from the title of my address today, I use sport as a means of sharing a few thoughts with you today.

I watch a lot of sport, whether on television or live, but mostly I watch you play. I obviously cannot get to all the games but I try to get to as many as I can to show my support for you, to encourage you and to see you in a different context. A few things came to me these past weeks.

I was watching basketball and, as many of you know, if your opponent fouls you under certain conditions, you are entitled to a number of free throws where you stand a short distance from the basket and try and throw it in. All players are entitled to do this – you don’t have a specialist free-throw player- so all practise this and I see many of you standing for hours practising free throws. They are, as the name suggests, “free” from opponents who are not allowed to interfere. So why do we miss so much in matches? When we practise, we get eight, nine or ten in on the trot, yet in a match, we battle sometimes. This is not unique to school players – Michael Jordan, one of the greatest basketballers ever, had a free throw conversion of 83% which meant he missed too and missed roughly one out of every five he took. There are a few current players at the top of their game at 90% but that is very rare indeed. I doubt that a schoolboy player has a free throw percentage over 60% but I don’t know.

I was watching cricket and the junior players in particular and some of them were battling to score runs. They didn’t have the strength to hit the ball hard enough to get past a fielder and couldn’t hit the ball over their heads so ended up battling to score runs which is the purpose of the game.

I watched water polo and saw players who were given the chance to shoot a penalty – 5 meters from the goal with only a goalkeeper to beat, and miss the goals completely. I am sure these players practise this a lot and they could score at will then but in the game situation they missed – and these were specialist players.

And then I play golf, as you know, and despite standing for many hours on the practise putting surface, knocking in putt after putt from two feet, when it comes to the game situation, the two foot putt is often missed.

So what do these stories have in common? In each case the simple factor that affects our performance is anxiety caused by pressure. The pressure we put on ourselves or the pressure our teammates, opposition or crowd put on us makes us perform worse – if we let it. Unrealistic expectations from parents or coaches also contribute to that pressure.

When we are in pressure situations, our bodies release adrenaline and produce the hormone cortisol. Cortisol boosts blood sugars and adrenaline causes things like a quickening pulse and rapid breathing – you are ready for fight or flight. But while these chemicals may help you in a situation such as a five meter scrum you have to defend, they won’t help in the situations I described above that require calmness, coolness and a level head. So what can we do to help this?

I have two suggestions for you – and this applies not only to these sports but anything that we practise again and again only to fail at under performance situations. Firstly, put yourself under pressure when you practise – imagine tough moments, get your teammates to get in your head and practise slowly closing them out, blocking off their influence. Practice how you need to perform – under pressure.

Secondly, when we are excited, when we are in a happy place and bursting with energy, our body releases adrenaline and cortisol – exactly the same hormones as when we are under pressure. So – instead of thinking about how much pressure we are feeling, think about how much excitement there is and how happy you are to be in this special moment. This simple tool of telling your brain that your feeling of pressure is actually excitement and anticipation can change your outlook and change your performance. While the body produces exactly the same two chemicals, you can have an influence on the effect of these chemicals by using the power of the mind to overcome what the body wants to do. Look at any top sportsman’s interview before they compete – not one of them says they are nervous, they say they are excited, keen to go. They are consciously blocking the negative effects of the chemicals in their bodies. Try it…

The example I gave about cricket tells a slightly different story – one of perspective. When a batsman walks out to bat and takes guard, most batsmen look around to see where the fielders are – and then hit the ball directly to them thus failing to score. You see, our brains register that a person is there and give us a target – an object to aim at, and so we do. We subconsciously try to hit that target.  What about looking at it differently? The next time you walk out to bat, look instead as to where the gaps are – where the holes are you can hit the ball to. Set your target not as the players but as the spaces. A simple change in attitude that persuades the brain to behave differently and succeed.

These two simple manipulations of the mind – to tell yourself that nervousness is actually excitement and looking for the opportunities instead of the hindrances may just make a difference in your sport. By extension, this obviously can be applied to all pressure situations – your music, your tests and exams. Try it!

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