How to win those important moments

There’s a moment, a fleeting split-second, when you’re tested and everything suddenly seems on the line. It sharpens your focus. It’s now or never. Pressure on!

Some people attempt sheer off the cuff bravado, roll the dice and get away with it (or not). Others stumble, nervously panic and whimper a little. Some seem to know what to do, what to say, and do it with aplomb as if shelling pees.

Whether it’s at a crucial point of a negotiation, a tough question put to you live on TV or a fast cricket ball hurtling towards your stumps, how you handle the next split second can make or break your month, your career or your team’s chances of winning the grand final.

Justin Langer, current coach of WA cricket team, and former Australian test batting legend, likes to remind his players that if they don’t put themselves under pressure in practice, how can they handle the pressure of a real game? Because being put under pressure in a game is exactly the situation they will be put under, and how they handle that moment, is important.

This reminds me of my last game of cricket, played about 10 years ago, coincidentally one in which the same Justin Langer played …

OK, a wicket has fallen, and my heart jumps as I realise I have to bat now. I’ve been padded up for a while, watching the bowling and now it’s going to be my turn. I start to walk out, practice a few off drives, blink up at the sun, skip to get my feet moving. I pass the outgoing batsman. Bad/Good luck we murmur to each other. Arriving at the middle, I look up at the umpire and ask for middle and leg. Marking my guard, I glance around the field, to see faces staring looking back at me disdainfully. 11 of them. Plus 2 umpires. I acknowledge my team mate at the other end. I twizzle the bat in my hands, look up at the bowler, who then starts his run up. The pitch looks lighter than I remember, and broader, and far away from the boundary edge from where I was just a minute ago. All eyes are on me. Concentrate! watch the ball, watch the ball.

There’s a split moment after he delivers the ball when I have to decide what to do. As the ball is in the air, I try to pick up it’s trajectory. Can I leave it alone? Please for my first ball, I just want to either leave it alone, confidently, or play a resolute defensive shot. Feel bat on ball. Get to the end of the over unscathed, or even better, tickle a single somewhere and get up the other end and off the dreaded nought.

The young strapping fast bowler delivers a thunderbolt, yorker length and I can’t react in time. I hear the clatter as my leg peg is knocked over. Golden duck!

I barely saw anything, and barely moved. I froze. I’d been playing cricket for 30 or more years, had scored a good share of runs in that time, but nothing saved me that day. Castled. First up. Good nut. Cue trudge back to the pavilion. As I walked off, I think I knew that my eyes had gone, my reflexes has gone, and golf was going to be the pastime from now on!

I now coach my son’s Under 13 team, and yesterday they lost to a very powerful, all conquering team of older lads. They tried as hard as they could, but for the team as a whole, the gulf was too wide. They’d not been close to being bowled out all year, but yesterday they were knocked over collectively for less than one of the players had scored individually in a recent game. They will be stronger for it the next time.

My last ignominious innings was preceded by 10+ years of no practice at all, so blaming my 40+ year old eyes and reflexes is a cop out. I play golf most weekends, but apart from the occasional 5 minute blast on the driving range and swinging of a few clubs a few minutes before my first drive, I don’t practice. No wonder it can take my game a few holes to warm up. And in any case, the driving range in no way resembles the pressures and situations you encounter on the golf course, among thick bushes in a bad sandy lie with swirling gusts of wind when you’ve already had 3 shots.

If you can going to win these micro moments of importance, in a negotiation, a sales call, a board room, live on TV or on stage or in sports, you need to practice, and put yourself under pressure during practice.

In my U-13 cricket team I know exactly who has practised well all season, and who has not. Those that have come on this year, have practised the most. Those that have not, have stood still.

People say to me (which is very nice of them) that I ‘own the stage’ or am a ‘natural speaker’ when I am doing a presentation or moderating a panel discussion. Believe me, at school, I would go bright red if the teacher so much as looked in my direction. I was a geeky, awkward and slightly overweight 12 and 13 year old, not very confident, a bit shy and hated any attention in class.

This other cricketing memory from that time, 40 years ago one English summer, pretty much sums it up…

My year’s cricket team was playing the nearby rival school across town, and we were in trouble. We had no chance of winning the game, so had to try and last out the day, batting for a noble draw. I was last man in, and in the last over, had to face a few balls to deliver us that result. I don’t remember the ball being delivered, but I do remember closing my eyes and lunging forward to try and play the most immaculate forward defensive shot ever played. By the time I’d opened my eyes (I swear this is a true memory) the opposition team was walking off in celebration. I looked back, and my stumps were intact. I remember the ball hitting my bat, quite well… but then it must have popped up for a catch, which was taken. I had not seen my calamitous shot or the catch being made. Eyes were closed in defiance. Game over, we had lost.  

And yet, within a few years, I had grown in confidence, become a useful batsman and played some serious club cricket in the UK and Singapore. I even made 7 appearances for the Singapore national team and have a page on the CricInfo website that proves it so.

In between there was lots of practice, lots of mistakes and lots of games. Even though I was not particularly gifted, I loved the game and worked at it.

As I grew in confidence as a teenager, I learned how to speak in public too. I practised. I still do. Every time I am going to speak on stage, I have spend hours honing the slide deck, the talking points, the words and stories I am about to say. If the event is video’d, I watch it back and criticise my performance.

It’s boring, but it’s also 100% true that performance is borne from practice. The right type of practice. Those that try to wing it on the night may fluke a few wins here and there, but more often that not they will be caught short and won’t reach their potential. Same for final year exams. Those that put in the effort, and importantly, practice like the real thing, putting themselves under pressure during practice (such as doing timed exam questions), will be more able to handle the slings and arrows and random things that are thrown at you when the chips are down and the thing is on, for real.

I am amazed at sales people who baulk at practising their craft, honing their phone technique or role playing their sales meetings. It’s critical. So much learning results. Similarly, startup founders who cannot articulate their obvious passion into a clear, sensible business case for potential investors. Or business leaders with hopeless presentation skills, droning on through boring bullet point laded powerpoint pages.

So, take it from Alfie. Put yourself in a game situation, under pressure as you practice. And when the actual moment comes, and when the next move you make, or words that come out of your mouth, determine whether you will win or lose, you’ll be much more likely to win.