What It’s Like To Face Pressure

By Matt Burke from Kicking It Around the Globe

Nothing tests the mental strength of a sportsman like the pressure of the crowd.

What It’s Like To Face Pressure

Former Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer used to describe goal kickers as special beasts. He once said that “Kickers have the responsibility of kicking the goal, and that denies up to 14 other people in the team the opportunity to do that. But I can tell you that most of the other 14 guys don’t want the opportunity. It’s the guy who has the talent and belief in his ability and the courage to stay composed under pressure to score those points who can become such an important member of your side.”

Thanks, Bob, no pressure at all.

Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be that bloke who stood up there and took the kick. I’ve always enjoyed absorbing the pressure, whether that be in my early days of playing soccer taking the penalty kicks or through my rugby career shooting goals for my school, my club, my state or my country. And just about every time I wasn’t given that opportunity, I’d be asking the question why.

I’ve been in some pressure situations, where the final roll of the dice was in my hands. I remember chatting to some journos after one situation where I had the opportunity to seal a win and told them, “It’s a pretty simple equation. You kick it, you’re a hero. Miss it and you’re the villain.” And that’s what it comes down to.

On those occasions, your ability to keep calm counts for so much. You don’t want your mind racing, thinking about scenarios of what could be and, worst case, what could have been.

My days at club rugby were very infrequent; as a matter of fact, in the professional era it was predominantly a means of getting back to fitness after injury. I did, however, get my 50 games for Eastwood Rugby, something I’m very proud of.

Early in my kicking career I felt I had to hit every goal kick over the top of the posts, sometimes losing that finesse and accuracy. On one particular afternoon at T.G. Millner Field, I was having a rather off day. Fortunately for us, we were scoring tries and not having to count too much on my services.

One of the great things about playing club rugby is that the supporters are just there – right in your eye line and right in earshot. This afternoon, as I was lining up an attempt at goal, I was getting some advice from one particular patron in the crowd.

“Hey, Burkey, take this one a little left,” he said on my first kick. I missed the shot right and all I heard was: “I told you to aim left!” The crowd got a good laugh out of that.

My next shot at goal was met with: “Hey, Burkey, listen to me, mate, take this one a little left as well.” I went through the motion and missed it right a second time.

Here we go again, I thought.

“Burkey!” he called out. “Come on, mate, listen to me – I’ll get you home.”

The crowd got an even bigger laugh.

I was starting to regret having to take the next shot at goal. This time, though, it was in the middle of the park and my friend surely couldn’t give me any advice – or so I thought. How wrong I was.

“Hey, Burkey!” he yelled. “I can’t help you on this one, but I reckon it’s straight.”

I nailed it and the applause went up, but more for ‘old mate’ in the stands.

I hit a couple more successful conversions and was starting to get back some confidence. We then scored a try on the right-hand side of the field and my first thought was not of excitement but trepidation, knowing that my friend was going to be right behind me.

“Hi Burkey, it’s me again,” he said.

Oh, come on, I thought I’d kept you quiet by getting a couple of successful kicks.

“So are you going to take my advice this time?” he asked.

I tried to ignore the bloke – I was determined to put him out of my mind. Right, go through the process. You know exactly what to do, but learn from your other kicks.

I took five steps back, paused, started my run-up and whack. It sailed right of the posts again. No way! I shut the comments out of my head, but all I could hear was laughter… at my expense.

Apart from my errant kicking, would you believe I played a solid game? Having already won, we had one last shot at our opposition. It was a beautiful piece of counterattack starting from near our own line, pushing down the field. The interchanging of passing between the forwards and backs was something to be proud of. It felt like a training run and I got the last pass. Yours truly dived over in the corner, and, you guessed it… on the right-hand side of the pitch. Here comes my mate again. As I walked back to the mark, the chat started.

“Righto, Burkey, let’s nail this last one, mate, and when you do we’ll go have a beer in the clubhouse. Remember this one goes to the right, so aim further left, champ.”

I took aim with my usual set-up. I stepped back to make sure I’d lined it up right and thought, This is it. Be confident. Strike it well and

“Hey, Burkey, further left,” came the call.

What?

“Further left, mate,” was his response.

So I thought, Just do it. I readjusted the direction of the ball, stepped back to take stock and… it happened again.

“A bit more, mate,” he called out. “Come on, trust me.”

At this point I was shaking my head and smiling at the same time. The crowd around the bloke was starting to jump on the bandwagon with cries of “Come on, Burkey, trust him!”

So, with a shrug of the shoulder I went back for more and played up to the crowd. I crouched beside the ball and looked over my shoulder, asking for direction. There were cries of “Left, left, left!” So I obliged, pointing the ball way outside the left upright. Then I took my stance and struck the ball perhaps the best I had all afternoon.

The sound of the ball leaving the boot was like a cracking whip, setting sail for the posts. I’d done just what the fans wanted and stuck it outside the left upright – and wouldn’t you know it, it didn’t come back. It missed left. I looked up in despair. There was a massive sigh and one lone voice piped up.

“Hey, Burkey, don’t trust me, mate. What would I know? I’m just a guy in the crowd.”

Thanks very much.

This is an edited extract from Kicking It Around the Globe by Matt Burke © Matt Burke (Ebury Australia, August 2016). Out now in print and ebook.

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