It is a classic commentary line; they kept a cool head under pressure. Remaining cool headed is revered and lorded by many people in sport, but is it just an illusion seen from the outside. Is it actually helpful to keep a cool head. The impression is given that the person involved has completely calm, rational thoughts and a relaxed response. However, could it be more that the individual in question has learnt how to react appropriately by repeated exposure?
Watching Virat Kohli’s intense fielding reactions and the wired look in his eyes when he is batting indicates that the harnessing of emotion in performance may be more useful. Andy Murray is often criticised for getting too worked up, from letting his game get distracted by his anger. Yet Andy is the world’s number one ranked tennis player. Someone who is more naturally cool headed may never have had the drive, the fight to make it to that level. These individuals who are passionate about their sport and succeeding in their sport may not be particularly cool headed at all. In fact they may simply have learnt to take the right decisions at the right time. Uncertainty is often what leads to anxiety and panic. Murray and Kohli may rarely appear to be anxious as they make good, practice and experience based decisions. Look at the England football team against Iceland last summer- they appeared at a total loss how to approach an alien situation. It may be that the best sports people simply appear cool headed because they so often make correct decisions. Whilst these are just a few examples they do indicate that encouraging a cool headed approach to all may be counterproductive to personal development and performance. Kohli’s passion is in stark contrast to MS Dhoni’s casual demeanour as Indian cricket captain, yet the performances under Kohli have been at least as strong, arguably better. The appropriateness of cool headiness is more likely to lie in the situation, sport and the individual. Many attributes or mentalities can succeed and stereotyping traits may be counterproductive.
To examine different requirements for mentality we can take two contrasting sports as an example- Snooker and Rugby. Snooker will require focus, attention but also relaxation, partly due to the length of matches. Rugby clearly requires enough emotional intensity to aid adrenaline for physical performance and pain. It may be more judging or manipulating when to invest and to what level to invest to that is important. The rugby player may need to engage passion in the aim of getting “fired up” to initiate the fight/flight response to a high level. This is improves energy production, focus, pain tolerance etc. but is also physically and mentally draining. If the intensity is raised too high the player may exhaust themselves too quickly, may make poor decisions or they may also find they can reach levels of performance never before achieved. The trick for the naturally high emotional investor may be more to know when to use the investment and when to keep relaxed. Take Kohli, again for example, he can invest heavily during his own batting and at times of key captaincy decision making but he may need to detach and ignore others when he isn’t batting. Arsene Wenger recently supported Alexis Sanchez’s fired up behaviour when it criticised by the media. Wenger called it the necessary desire, the media questioned Sanchez’s attitude and control. Sanchez’s frustration and anger at losing 3-0 triggered an increased intensity that inspired a come back to 3-3. Perhaps his efforts were mistimed in that they would have been better invested earlier in the game.
So why does the stereotype for the cool head exist? Clearly it is possible to over engage the fight/flight response. Highly emotionally driven actions can sometimes pay off or sometimes result in rule infringement, personal or worse other people’s harm. This could lead to a blinding of rational thought and impulsive behaviours. Just yesterday the 17 year old Canadian tennis player smashed a ball in anger that lead him to forfeit his Davis Cup tie, one that he was losing anyway: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/tennis/38876869. The negative consequences can always be associated with a lack of emotive control but the positive ones are more difficult to place. If the player obtains the outcome they wish, winning the tennis match for example, it could be easy to attribute that success to rational correct thinking. But what if the key was the energy released from the emotional reaction? Different personalities can succeed; it may even be beneficial to have different personalities within a team for different situations. Keeping a cool head all the time may not be a desirable trait. Use your strengths, contain your weaknesses. Learn from situations and respond better the next time. The best athletes are likely to be the best learners.