Many people believe that major dramatic changes in life (death, divorce, loss of job) are the most potent producers of stress. But we know this is not so. Most of our pressure is caused by minor setbacks, failures and frustrations and by petty and trivial everyday annoyances and hassles. Chronic pressure can be a powerful enemy.
It is worth repeating the research findings of Sir Charles Symonds (English neurologist) on the effects of chronic and unrelenting stress on the performance and health of soldiers exposed to continuous combat during World War 11. Sir Charles found that the constant and prolonged tension of battle resulted in a breakdown of performance.
Sir Charles discovered that every soldier had a breaking point. In the early part of a campaign most soldiers faced up to their fears and learned to control them. They became competent in battle and developed self-confidence. But, after three or four weeks of constant battle, the signs of combat fatigue occurred. They complained of continuous tiredness that was not relieved by sleep or rest.
They could not tell the difference between their own guns and the enemy’s. They were easily startled and became tense and confused. They were moody and irritable, and over-reacted to trivial stimuli. They concentrated poorly and performed badly. Later on those symptoms were replaced by dullness, apathy, mental and physical slowness and eventually depression.
Many sportsmen suffer from a form of “combat fatigue” or mental fragility at some stage of their career. From the start of his first-class cricket career, Brian Lara was under enormous and unrelenting pressure, not just from his opponents, but also from the cricketing public, team members, administrators, and particularly the press.
Breaking the world records for the highest scores in Test cricket and first-class cricket catapulted him to superstardom at a very young and tender
age. Unlike Tiger Woods the golfer, Lara was not prepared or trained to deal with the trappings and the intense and chronic pressures of superstardom, nor did he have the support network around him to protect him from the constant pressures that he faced.
Taking on the burden of captaincy did not help. It intensified the pressure. The continuous battles and chronic stresses that he encountered eventually took their toll and at one stage he showed signs and symptoms of “combat fatigue”. He then gave up the captaincy and withdrew from the team for a while to get some rest and recreation and to recharge his physical and psychological batteries.
When he returned to the game later on, his mind was rested, fresh and alert and he played some of the most magnificent innings imaginable.
Although Woods had extensive training and preparation for his role as a superstar and the best golfer in the world — a role that he handled competently and admirably — his personal and golf worlds still came crashing down after some off-field indiscretions.
The resulting and continuous pressures messed up his mind and his golf game, and at present he is only a shadow of the player he once was. During his development program, I am sure that he was not trained to deal with those off-field pressures that found his Achilles heel. His golf game will eventually return and he will again become a champion but he will need to do some mental adjusting to get there.
With the heavy workload on today’s sportsmen and sportswomen, sports administrators might well have to look closely at the problem of “combat fatigue” and ensure that the players get quality rest and recreation in order to stay fresh and alert throughout the season. Today’s military protect soldiers from the pressures of continuous combat by doing just that.
Produced with permission from the book Think Like a Champion by Dr Rudi Webster. Published by Harper Collins. Price Rs 450