Pressure on Athletes at the World Cup

The ball is at your feet. You take a deep breath as a bead of sweat drips down the side of your face. Your heart is pounding. Chants rain all around deafening but somehow all you hear are your thoughts. Is it fear? Pressure? Excitement? Anxiety?

Make this kick, and your country will win the World Cup.

The question is, do you feel elation or anguish?

“You can't understand what the World Cup means to our country,” said Brazilian superstar, Ronaldinho. “Not just the fans and players, but everybody in Brazil lets us know that they expect it. Our president, people in politics, all tell us to come back with the World Cup.”

Digest that for a second. The president of a country is telling athletes that they need to come home with a trophy. The pressure these athletes feel is like no other. Even this year, some of the best players in the world are feeling the burden of playing for their national team. You can see it in Lionel Messi’s body language on the field and in Argentina’s results. Messi, five time Ballon d'Or winner (best player of the world), can’t shrug off the feeling that his career is incomplete without a World Cup Trophy. He said the World Cup “is every player’s objective, it’s really the pinnacle”. You saw it when Brazilian prodigy, Neymar, burst into tears after Brazil’s win over Costa Rica. His goal in stoppage time helping to lift his country to the elimination round. Their emotions are raw and real.

Stress goes beyond wins and losses and beyond the pitch. Players have received death threats. They are harassed on social media for poor play. A Colombian player, Andres Escobar, was gunned down when returning home from the World Cup in 1994. He had scored an own goal that eliminated his country from the tournament. This year there have been parallels within the Colombian team. Carlos Sánchez is being threatened on social media for being sent off early with a red card during group play. Pictures of Sánchez and Escobar all across twitter gave the next Colombian match a chilling undertone.

It is one thing for the athlete to put this amount of strain on themselves to perform. They already are feeling the urgency of the moment. Athletics drive some fans to forget compassion. They need to recognize that these threats are going out to another human being. The fans don’t empathize with the athletes because they have put them up on a pedestal. Mistakes are sometimes made. There is no winning without losing. Fans cannot lose sight of this and athletes need to know how to handle the sometimes over the top reactions of fans.

If you look at the NBA, athletes like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan have stepped forward to talk about the mental anxiety and anguish they have dealt with while playing. Brazil's coach Tite said after their 1-1 draw with Switzerland that the team’s performance stemmed from anxiety at playing their first World Cup game. Even at the highest level, people do not escape the mental trials that sport can create.

The pressure on an athlete to perform is intense, no matter the sport, no matter the stage. Kids have crumbled under the pressures in youth sports, but at that level, it's necessary to remember it's only a game. At the highest level, a professional has to learn to manage the stress healthily to perform their job. While some may thrive in the spotlight, it can be a massive challenge for others. The key for athletes is to remember that mental preparation, training and skill development can be as crucial as physical training.  Athletes, teams and organizations need to provide athletes with these tools and proactive support.

The whistle blows. The time is now. What is it going to be?  Yogi Berra said it best. 90 percent of the game is half mental. Your body can make the shot.  Hit the ball. Score the goal. However, your mental strength determines how you perform.

So again, the question is, is it elation or anguish?

The answer really has a lot more to do with whether you make it or not.

Game Change was founded in 2011 to serve and enhance the athlete development needs of major professional and elite sport organizations and athletes.  Game Change specializes in customized research and assessment services, the development of applied interventions and resources designed to provide long-term positive outcomes for organizations and individual athletes.  Game Change believes strongly in sport as a catalyst for societal change and adheres to the philosophy of ‘changing the world one athlete at a time’.