As a fan, sports often take us to the edge of our seats. When your favorite team is down by two points or a goal, and this is a must-win game to advance in the playoffs, then yes, it might be better just to close your eyes.
Now that we are in the thick of both the NBA and NHL playoffs, there is no shortage of stressful moments. Players are unfortunately being injured; teams are constantly facing elimination. And it all adds up to stomach ulcers and tears if we lose. There’s a reason sports fans refer to their team as “we.” The feeling of identification we have with our guys is important. Their highs are our highs, just as their lows can be our painful lows.
Often in the high stress situations, one player becomes the focus of attention--to the point where success or failure can depend on this one person. Over the course of many stressful moments in sports, I have tried to determine some of the more common pressure points. What are the most tense positions in sports? Or perhaps more accurately, who has the most potentially aggravating?
Now, I can only speculate on the stress of athletes themselves. I logged 5 career points in high school basketball (including some AAU play), and I batted somewhere around .212 in baseball. Needless to say, I was not called upon often in stressful situations. But I am more than qualified to talk about the impact on the fans, with over 20 years of experience, predominantly with teams from Detroit, which I think earns me some bonus points.
ANYWAY, here is a list of some of what I consider the most terrifying positions in sports, in no particular order. If any of these positions cause near as much strain as we feel, then I can’t help but feel for them. Unless they play for the other team.
The Placekicker - I’ll start with an easy one. Although the field goal is only worth three points, it’s hard to imagine a more isolated task in football than kicking one. For a sport in which there are so many players on the field at one time, and the action occurs within about three seconds for each play, kicking is about the only time where no one else is watching anything. So much so, that the strategy known as “icing the kicker” involves taking timeouts only to increase the pressure of the moment. Regardless of the point value, I bet you can think of a few games your team has won or lost from a FG off the top of your head. After the fact, of course, the replay can decide that the snap was bad or the holder mishandled it, but in the moment, a missed kick is one person’s fault. And that can be all that matters.
The Putter - Here I am referring not to the golf club, but to the role of the golfer, the final and sometimes most difficult task of each hole. Experience has taught me that almost nothing is more elating on a golf course than watching a putt fall from fifteen or twenty feet out. Imagine how much that feeling would be multiplied if sinking that putt meant winning a major. Imagine also how crushing a missed putt would be. Just ask Doug Sanders or Scott Hoch. I also know from experience that there is no one more critical of your golf game than yourself when you are having a bad day. Just consider the amount of self-induced pressure when lining up a makeable putt. Which direction will it break? How hard should I hit it? Is there anything in the path? These and a thousand other questions are racing through a Tour golfer’s mind and the minds of the two hundred people crowded around the green staring at them. That kind of pressure would be unbelievable, and very well may be the most intense on this list.
The Free Throw Shooter - Possibly the most obvious example of stress in sports. All eyes are on one player as they take a shot. Pretty straightforward. Everyone likes to complain about free throws and how easy they are, usually with the witty comment, “They’re called free throws!” But free throws are not that automatic. Percentages made can range from the amazing (Steph Curry, 90.7%) to the atrocious (my Pistons’ Andre Drummond, 35.5%), but most are somewhere in the middle. Still, on average, players are going to miss one out of every four or five shots. Compound all the screaming and yelling at a player when they are at the line, and it’s a wonder they don’t miss more shots. Foul shots at the end of the game are especially stressful, of course, because they can decide the result. As fouls start to fly in the last 40 seconds of a game, half the people in the arena are hoping a player will miss the shot to keep it a one-point game, the other half are wishing the opposite to expand the lead. Simply making free throws--worth a measly one point--can be more than enough to win a game.
The Shootout Goalie - A shootout is to hockey as one-on-one is to basketball. Both the goalie and the shooter have exactly one goal in mind, and that goal is in direct opposition of the other. The skater has a lot of time to think about the strategy for scoring a goal. The goalie can only react to the play. I would like to know what goes through a goalie’s mind in the seconds leading up to a shot. Should they expect the fake? Or the backhand? Or is that too predictable? There’s a lot of time to second-guess yourself as a goalie. I can’t even stand to watch shootouts; it’s just too much for me. I also don’t like the shootout because it reduces everything that’s happened over the last 65 minutes down to just six shots that take about two minutes to complete. It feels anticlimactic and a bit like the rest of the game was wasted, but that’s neither here nor there.
The Closer - I saved this for last because a closer can be one of two people. A good closer can save a winning baseball game or he can be the single most aggravating part of a pitching staff. Closers, if you don’t know, are specific pitchers who enter at the start of the ninth inning with their team leading, ostensibly collect three outs, and save the game for their team. It sounds easy enough. But it isn’t always.
This is different from some of the other entries on this last because the stress of a closer’s final inning is not limited to just a moment, but rather a drawn-out series of minutes where every pitch could change the outcome of the game. And unlike the other athletes listed here, the entire stadium’s focus is not solely on the pitcher, but also on the batter--an equally stressful position--who could groove a hit in the gap or a home run into the stands.
Every baseball fan, without fail, has watched their closing pitcher give up a walk and a hit and, before they know it, their team has lost. And in that moment, it can feel like losing a World Series. There’s not many harder moments to endure than watching your team lead for a majority of the game only to throw it away in the final inning. It’s easy to blame the pitcher, but it’s not always fair.1
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After looking at this list, some commonalities emerge. For one, they are of relatively lesser value than other aspects of their sports. By this, I mean literally one free throw is worth far less than a three-point shooter with a hot hand, or a putt is 15 feet compared to a 250 yard drive. Comparatively, it is easy to discount the little parts of games, but they truly do add up. The saying, “Free throws win games,” is not wrong. Secondly, most involve a stoppage of play, which adds to the anxiety levels. When play stops, all eyes are on the person responsible for the next action, such as the field goal kicker, and the ensuing result.
Finally, the people on this list are rarely the type of player you would categorize as the “star” of the team. Starting pitchers are in occasional stressful situations like a third inning jam or a no-hitter in the ninth inning. Quarterbacks might be under pressure to complete a pass to continue the last drive. But the typical face of the organization is not under such situational stress. This gives those on this list more of a heroic quality. Or it could set someone up for infamous failure. Either way, moments of stress in sports can become the stuff of legends.
1 Permit me a brief discourse on Detroit Tigers’ closers. No one likes going through those stressful ninth innings, but the Tigers always seem to have a guy who does it. We went through a decade of Todd Jones (actually nicknamed the “Rollercoaster” because his outings were so up and down), Fernando Rodney, Jose Valverde, and Joe Nathan, where winning never felt like an absolute guarantee. To be sure, these guys mostly got results, each with at least one 30+ season. But I just don't understand why we have to worry so much going into the final inning. For me, it's almost like a Red Wings shootout. So my question is, how many other teams experience this with closers? 20%? Half? It can't be only happening to us. I know Cleveland has had their ups and downs in the 9th inning, for example. It just seems like, anecdotally, other closers are more or less a sure thing. There are reasons to expect this, I guess. We're inheriting closers who are more experienced (read: older), so they may be coming out of their prime. Also closing is really tough. I just remember when Joe Nathan would come out with Minnesota years ago: If we got to him, it felt like an anomaly, not the other way around.↩