The final seconds of the 1998 NBA finals left Chicagoans on the edge of their seats, cheering for a basketball legend to bring home his sixth NBA title. Chicago radio announcer Neil Funk describes the final seconds of a historic game six: “Malone…stripped by Michael, to the floor, stolen by M.J.! Michael the steal! 16 seconds left, Bulls down one…Michael against Russell, 12 seconds…11…10. Jordan, Jordan, a drive, hangs…fires…score!! He scores! The Bulls lead 87-86 with five and two-tenths left, and now they’re one stop away! Oh my goodness…Oh my goodness!” Bulls win! And Michael Jordan delivers one of the most clutch performances of all time, taking home his sixth MVP award, a feat that is unprecedented in NBA history.
Throughout his career, Michael Jordan became one of the most reliable clutch performers in the history of the NBA. Fans and teammates alike came to know Jordan as the ultimate “go-to guy,” someone who thrived under pressure. Jordan is most well known as the greatest player who ever played, but what really sets him apart from other superstars is his ability to embrace pressure situations. How is it that Jordan performed so well under pressure nearly every time he was called upon to hit the game winning shot? Jordan must possess a superhuman like ability to eliminate his nerves as if the pressure doesn’t exist. This is not the case, as Jordan explained that he too feels pressure, just like the rest of us. Jordan explained, “The day I’m not nervous is the day I quit. Nerves are great, it means you care. I care about what I do. Of course I’ll be nervous. That’s the greatest thing about it is to feel that rush.”
It was not Jordan’s ability to eliminate the pressures and nerves of the game that made him successful, but rather his ability to deal with and embrace his nerves allowing him to excel in high pressure situations. He recognized that he feels the pressure that most athletes do, and instead of recognizing it as negative energy, he fueled it into positive adrenaline. Unlike Jordan, most athletes find it difficult to come through in the clutch due to external pressures such as coaches, teammates, and parents expectations, as well as internal pressures, such as high expectations they place upon themselves. Many athletes psych themselves out by trying too hard or thinking too much about the consequences of what could happen if they screw up. There are many ways in which an athlete can subconsciously crumble under pressure, and most athletes unintentionally stumble upon them. So how do we eliminate our subconscious nerves?
Patrick J. Cohn a sports psychologist analyzed the mental aptitude of modern day athletes with an emphasis on Tiger Woods’ psychological approach to golf. Cohn’s goal was to determine how Tiger Woods became one of golf’s most consistent performers, in a sport that demands clutch performances hole after hole. He concluded that Tiger performs so well under pressure due to the fact that he places the same expectations upon himself in competition as he does in practice. He plays as though each stroke is his last every time he picks up his clubs. Practice becomes no different from competition and therefore the pressures of the game are less stressful. He prepares for pressure filled situations by creating pressure situations every time he practices. Coaches throughout all levels of sports preach the idea “practice how you want to play” a valid lesson that is many times overlooked in sports, but is proven by Tiger Woods and many athletes alike to be an effective means of success.