Professional Athletes' Success Under Pressure Defines Champions

Jed Hughes@JedhugheskfCorrespondent IApril 18, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO - OCTOBER 10:  Tiger Woods of the USA Team celebrates his putt for a birdie to win the 17th hole during the Day Three Morning Foursome Matches of The Presidents Cup at Harding Park Golf Course on October 10, 2009 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

What separates champions from their competitors? 

Elite athletes are rarely defined on their skill set alone, but rather by the combination of physical and mental capabilities that allow them to thrive when the stakes are highest.  Winning teams compete at the top of their game when they are both physically and mentally prepared.  They achieve high levels of composure and confidence through situational practice.  Their ability to focus on executing the task at hand distinguishes champions from the rest.  

Sports legends such as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Mariano Rivera, Reggie Jackson, Tom Brady, and Joe Montana all established reputations of thriving under intense pressure.  Brett Favre added to his legacy in 2003 when he passed for 399 yards and four touchdowns while leading the Packers to a 41-7 victory over the Raiders just one day after his father's death. 

The annuls of sports are filled with examples of heavily favored teams cracking under pressure, not because of their skills, but because of their inability to stay focused on a common goal.  

The combination of physical skills and mental ability required in golf make it a difficult game to win.  A golfer who lacks the ability to ignore competitors' scores, tune out the crowd and focus on execution is destined to fail.  Jean Van de Velde famously blew a three-stroke lead on the final hole of the 1999 British Open because of a series of poor shots and bad decisions.  Van de Velde later admitted he had trouble falling asleep the night before.  He will always be remembered, not for his exceptional play, but for his heartbreaking loss in a 4-hole playoff to Paul Lawrie.

Scott Norwood missing the potential game winning field goal in Super Bowl XXV
Scott Norwood missing the potential game winning field goal in Super Bowl XXVRick Stewart/Getty Images

Colossal failures are etched into the memories of fans of all sports.  Ralph Branca's served up a home run ball to Bobby Thompson in 1951...the "little roller" that went through Bill Buckner and behind the bag in 1986...Kicker Scott Norwood's missing what would have been the winning field goal in Super Bowl XXV for the Buffalo Bills, who went on to lose the next three Super Bowls. 

The 1978 Yankees overcame a 14-game deficit and beat the Red Sox in their famous one-game playoff.  Against their arch-rivals in 2004, the Bombers blew a 3-0 game lead in the ALCS.   In 2010, the Boston Bruins coughed up a 3-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals, capping it off by blowing a 3-0 lead in Game 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-3.

Even great champions are not immune from succumbing to pressure:

Early in his career, Tiger Woods established an assassin-like reputation as a great closer.  His ability to thrive under pressure and get better as a tournament progressed added to his legend.  Tiger's record is 14-1 when entering the final round of a major with at least a share of the lead.  His recent struggles on the golf course likely are caused as much by his well documented off-field distractions as his injuries.  At this year's Masters in Augusta,  Tiger demonstrated frustration by screaming and tossing his club after hitting poor shots—obviously losing composure, confidence and focus. 

At the 1988 Winter Olympics, speed skater Dan Jansen was a heavy favorite in the 500 and 1,000 meter races.  Hours after learning that his sister had died of leukemia, he competed in the 500m and fell.  In the 1,000m a few days later, he started on a record-breaking pace but fell again.  Disaster struck again in 1992, as Jansen finished fourth in the 500m and 26th in the 1,000m.  Finally, in 1994, he finally captured his only Olympic medal by setting a new world record in the 1,000m.

15 Feb 1992:  Dan Jansen of the USA in action during the Mens 500 metres Speed Skating event at the 1992 Winter Olympic Games in Albertville, France. \ Mandatory Credit: Pascal  Rondeau/Allsport
Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

Fair or not, Phil Mickelson has a reputation as a golfer who collapses at the end, despite the fact that  he has won three times at the Masters and once at the PGA Championship.  Greg Norman will forever be remembered for shooting a course record opening round and leading at the Masters in 1996 as he sought to finally capture a title that had eluded him throughout his career.  In one of the worst final round performances ever, The Shark blew a six-stroke lead in the final round and finished five strokes back of Nick Faldo.

Mike Tyson was undefeated and considered the "Baddest Man on the Planet" in 1990 when he fought Buster Douglas in Japan for the Heavyweight championship.  Just three weeks before the title fight, Douglas’s mother died.  Instead of losing focus, he utilized his mother’s death as a source of motivation.  Though few gave him a chance of winning, Douglas stepped into the ring in top condition and mentally prepared for battle.  Tyson, meanwhile, had been distracted by nightlife and did not train seriously enough to beat a determined opponent.  In short, he lost focus.

The key to closing the deal is not letting distractions take hold of your performance.  When I was coaching with legends such as Chuck Noll of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Bud Grant of the Minnesota Vikings, we prepared our teams so well that they had total confidence in their ability to execute.  Winning teams are able to block out crowd noise, ignore the pressure of the situation, and focus on executing the task at hand.   They perform under pressure because their focus intensifies, just as drivers concentrate more intensely while driving on a stormy night.  Human performance is best when the mind and body are in sync. 

For any individual to flourish in challenging situations, they must change a stressful situation into a positive one.  There are a number of key influences that determine outcomes, including the amount of practice, confidence, the ability to control tense emotions and stay focused in body and mind.

Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice.  Among his high-profile placements are Mark Murphy, CEO of the Green Bay Packers; Larry Scott, Commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference; and Brady Hoke, head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.  Earlier in his career, Mr. Hughes coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA).  Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.