Keith Miller, a cricketer for whom flamboyance was a full-time occupation, once dismissed any notion that mental stress could overawe sport's practitioners by declaring that pressure was having "a Messerschmitt up your arse".
Miller played his cricket in a manner rarely matched and took such a carefree approach because of his wartime experiences. It is impossible to argue with a statement that says someone trying to kill you is more stressful than playing cricket, although in the 1970s Australia sought to combine the two for their English opponents via Lillee and Thomson.
Few have to go through what Miller did and so bring that level of perspective to sport. Instead sportsmen and women are faced with very real mental demands of performing on the highest stage and the huge attention that brings today. How they deal with it separates the great from the good. In today's parlance, and in a turn of phrase that might have struck a chord with Miller, it's all about handling squeaky bottoms.
Francois Pienaar knows about modern-day sporting pressure better than most. His proposal on ITV that Colin Slade, the anxious-looking All Black charged with filling Dan Carter's magical boots, relax, "enjoy his rugby" and "play with a smile" came from a successful experience of having carried his own nation's complicated hopes. It didn't go down well with Sean Fitzpatrick, who you suspect dealt with pressure by doing something unpleasant to it at the bottom of a ruck. It's real – "the weight of a nation" – but get on with it, was Fitzpatrick's take, accompanied by that thin smile that automatically makes you check how far away the door is or whether it would be better just to plunge out the window.
ITV's rugby coverage is at its best when the two grizzled greats are paired, and their exploration of what Slade was struggling through offered something above analysing a procession of All Black tries against a wilting Japanese defence. The pressure of wearing the jersey got to the highly rated Slade.
Having just turned 40, Dave Clarke is at the other end of his international career but he too is under pressure. He knows it and is feeling it, but Clarke appears to be aware of how to deal with it – perhaps through years in the game or simply because he is mentally tougher. As part of his personal pressure, Clarke has to juggle job and family with his sport; he admits to being selfish. Clarke is also blind, the captain of England's blind football team and desperate to hang on to his place for one final hurrah at the 2012 Paralympics.
Clarke was the cornerstone of Channel 4's latest look at British preparations for the Games and after the shipwreck of its athletics coverage, the broadcaster is back on firmer ground with documentary. It was a neatly woven piece of narrative. How the players deal with their disabilities – "Oh fucking hell," said one when he walked into a wall – was one part. The other would have been recognised by any sportsman or woman, the desire to succeed – Clarke pounding on the running machine in his garage late into the night – and turn ability into something tangible: caps, goals, medals.
For Clarke, pressure – his "Messerschmitt up the arse" – is on one hand trying to find a job as a blind man, or dealing with a disability that means he has never seen his children. But it's also keeping his place in the England team through performing on the pitch when it matters most.Reuse content