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Sporting Life

Pressure - an athlete's ever-present opponent

Never felt like vomiting? Or your body freeze? Cement in your joints? Dry mouth?

Not even in a weekend golf game on the last hole with a six-foot putt to win? Not during a casual tennis set when it's 4-5, 30-40 second serve. Which is when you begin regripping your racket repeatedly as a pathetic voice in your head tells you: "Don't double fault, please don't double fault. Just get it in."

It's tough isn't it, and yet amateurs fight in a completely different weight category of pressure. No one's even looking at you, not even the yawning security guard and the old gents in the next court. You're only playing a game, you're not at the SEA Games. No nation is on its metaphorical feet for you, no TV cameras stare unblinkingly at you, no medal table wants your contribution, no parents' savings are invested in what you're trying to do.

Now play. Now find your best.

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Pressure sends athletes to toilets and then psychologists, it has them chanting prayers and wearing lucky beads, it makes them swear and sweat, and it is precisely because sport can get so uncomfortable and draining and testing that we watch. In the athlete's struggle to overcome himself is the watcher's thrill.

Can she shoot a 10.6 in the last shot? Can he sink a basket with a second left? Can conviction outweigh hesitation? In your living room you can't breathe or move as the swimmer gets on the blocks, but the athlete has to free herself. This is sport with something on the line and something to lose (a reputation, a medal) and the knowledge that the next chance for this Games medal is roughly 700 days away.

Pressure never leaves, it's like a ghost that simply changes form. It can be a first dive at a first Games and a last jump at a last Games. It can be trying to win a gold no one from your nation has or to keep winning a gold your nation always has. It can be a personal best a rower needs to beat to keep his funding or a key performance indicator a runner has to meet.

Pressure sends athletes to toilets and then psychologists, it has them chanting prayers and wearing lucky beads... and it is precisely because sport can get so uncomfortable and draining and testing that we watch.

Pressure can be the fast guy in the next lane and forceful voice in your own head, for as Joseph Schooling will tell you it's his own expectation that's the most demanding. Pressure doesn't care about form, it will sneak up and surround you regardless, for as shooter Jasmine Ser will tell you, if you're performing well, you expect more of yourself and if you're struggling, then you're worried.

Pressure brews and builds like a minor storm. In the weeks before any Games, swimmer Amanda Lim won't even talk swimming with her parents, won't even bring up racing with her athlete friends, won't even discuss winning. She just wants to sleep right and eat right because to get sick is pressure.

On the night before her race, pressure will interfere with her sleep. On the morning of the race she'll review her race plan but pressure won't let go of her in the call room and it's so punishing that she'll ask herself: "Which 24-year-old must be feeling like this? Why am I doing this to myself?"

Then she reminds herself, "I am here to race".

She empties her mind and dives in and since she's a four-time 50m freestyle champion in a short, taut race with no room for mistakes, she's clearly an authentic pressure beater. A neat, methodical woman whose drive to win beats any fear of losing, but now in Kuala Lumpur she'll ask herself: Can I do it again?

Some athletes learn to wear pressure, some like it, want to be tested, are lifted by it, know how to use it. At the 1994 Asian Games, after the first three races, the sailor Ben Tan bets his friend, a fellow sailor, $30 that he won't come worse than third in his last four races. It's not about the money, of course, it's about challenge, it's about an athlete deliberately putting a little pressure on himself. Tan wins the bet, the gold, and he still has those three $10 notes.

There's no secret elixir and no How To Beat Pressure manual and so athletes train themselves to think positively and lose themselves in routine. Like programmed machines they'll tell you repeatedly that it's all about the process, dude, not the result, about focusing on plans not trophies, about executing a skill not victory speeches, about finding their best and not about winning. Even though winning is why they wake up every morning to train.

Pressure is going to win some battles in Kuala Lumpur, but then pressure at some time or the other beats everybody. It is the athlete's most formidably consistent rival, always lurking, asking questions, tormenting, which is why the toughest scraps at the SEA Games won't be swimmer versus swimmer or nation versus nation, but something more personal and meaningful and hidden behind blank faces.

Faith versus nerves. Trust versus insecurity. Confidence versus fear.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 12, 2017, with the headline 'Pressure - an athlete's ever-present opponent'. Print Edition | Subscribe