Taking the lid off the pressure cooker

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The Independent Online
One day, the science of sport psychology may advance enough to be able to tell us which sports are capable of creating the most mental torment, thereby allowing us to apportion our sympathy to the more deserving. The torment I refer to is that which occurs in the minds of the participants; the mental sufferings of the onlookers are liable to be caused by considerations other than the precise nature of the activity concerned.

Last weekend, for instance, the nerve-wracking adventures in the US Open of that prominent example of the psychoanalyst's dream patient, Colin Montgomerie, would have been shared by many of the watching millions. They would have either been mesmerised by the drama of his ceaseless crusade to win a major championship or, as is far more likely, they had a lump of money on him.

Thanks to the miracles of modern gambling it is possible to buy into these personal cameos and receive at least a taste of the emotional demands imposed by the big events. It is my experience, however, that losing money on individual sportsmen provides more of an insight into your own torment than theirs.

One reason behind this fascination with the psychological turbulence through which our sporting stars have to steer a steady course is that it is one of the last of the mysteries that surround them. There was a time when they were distant figures defined only by their achievements. How they shaped up as human beings, what they were like as personalities, what drove and sustained them in their quests for the prizes; the public might have been mildly interested to know but there was no urgency to find out.

The media's relentless march into every sporting recess - cameras in the dressing rooms, fly-on-the-wall documentaries, up-your-nose microphones - has left our heroes with few secrets about how they operate. Some would say that this intrusion applies even to the mind, that we are familiar with their mental strengths and weaknesses and with every foible and fear to which their brains are subject. But I doubt it.

The sports people themselves often attempt to describe their inner-most feelings at the vital point of their performance, but I doubt if even they can be relied upon to recollect the precise effect the crucial moments had on their emotions. And they could hardly compare the pressures they feel with those in other sports.

The traumas Montgomerie went through in Washington are difficult to measure against the mental burden that Tim Henman carries into Wimbledon tomorrow. Montgomerie's pressures are the result of his own demands on himself but Henman has on his back the expectations of the nation or, at least, that part of it contained largely in the heaving bosoms of matrons and schoolgirls. The boffins will be watching how Henman bears this responsibility as intently as the fans and nowhere more so than Newcastle College where the sports psychology course is making a special study of the subject.

Perhaps, it will be the men of the prying eye rather than the psychologists who first penetrate the brain to give us the information that will finally allow us to appreciate the full extent of the mental contribution to success or failure. They can insert cameras into every other organ in the body so, eventually, they may develop a way of seeing into the mind. By plugging into the pandemonium of a sportsman's thoughts at vital moments we could achieve the ultimate in sports watching.

A miniature contraption in the ear could do the trick although it may be that with one or two footballers all we would see is a view out of the opposite ear-hole. This would help to confirm the theory that dim- witted stars are less troubled by debilitating doubts than the more imaginative. And while on the subject of footballers; can pressure in a team game compare with the stress on those who compete individually? Anyone who takes kicks at goal in rugby might argue that a six-feet putt before a hushed audience is nothing compared to a touchline conversion to win an international in front of a hostile crowd.

It is not a comparison that takes into account the unique nature of golf which demands 270 strokes of near-immaculate precision over four days, four to five hours a day On the other hand, the ball is motionless and no one is trying to stop you putting it where you want. Tennis is an individual sport but success depends on how your opponent plays and how you react to the problems he presents. Boxing comes into the same category but the mental crises that can arise in the pre-fight build-up might be a touch more intense than in tennis where they merely imagine they're in life- or-death combat. The first bell of a big fight, however, tends to empty the mind of all but a few physical imperatives.

An experience that may invite the largest number of demons to set up residence in a man's skull was to be witnessed at Lord's on Friday. I have long felt that of all the important roles to be played in the various dramas of our sporting year the one that I would run furthest from would be to open the innings for England on the first morning of a Test match, especially at Lord's.

It is a task that not only demands the utmost skill and concentration when the bowlers are at their most ferocious and the flight and bounce of the ball at their least predictable but, more chillingly, carries a cruelly low failure threshold. They don't give you many chances and that thought would have been tugging hard at Mark Butcher's spirit on Friday morning when he faced the first ball of the delayed Second Test.

Butcher had made his debut in the First Test at Edgbaston and although England won, his contribution had not been encouraging. Neither was it on Friday when he succumbed early to the fast bowler Glenn McGrath under a strain that was knowingly and sensitively described by the BBC TV commentator Richie Benaud and, less kindly, by Geoff Boycott, an opening bat of famed stoicism.

The fact that his captain, Mike Atherton, and the rest of his colleagues fared no better might earn Butcher another chance but every opportunity increases the height of the barrier. Even if Butcher manages to establish himself his rewards will not be a fraction of what Montgomerie or Henman can earn, successful or not.

But money is not a strong factor behind sporting pressure. While we wait for the scientists to tell us precisely what the ingredients are, it might be as well to observe that, as in life generally, those who feel the greatest anguish are not always those who scream loudest.

Of all the frustrated cricketers over the past few days, Glamorgan's had most reason for rueful reflections in the puddles. The Welsh county, skittled out for 31 against Kent last weekend, were making promising progress in the opening innings against Lancashire when the deluge drove them in.

Yesterday morning they were still on the inside looking out, contemplating their 175 for 1 that looked to have gone to waste and wondering why it hadn't rained five days earlier when they were 24 for 8. Suddenly, the clouds parted and by a miracle and Waqar Younis they produced a win which proved that our weather has a kind side after all.