Recently, as I was watching our Varsity Basketball team play a game in the Shipley Center gymnasium, one of our Middle School basketball players and I struck up a conversation that left me thinking for many days to come. This student-athlete was commenting to me about how it must be so hard to play with so many people watching and cheering, and how simple things like shooting a free throw can be hard enough without all of that added pressure.
The next time one of our Varsity players stepped up to the foul line, we took in the scene and began to analyze it. The fans, her teammates, the coaches, her opponents, were all watching. The gym was silent. All attention was focused on this one player, this one shot, this one moment. We examined the faces in the crowd and saw smiling classmates, some nervous-looking parents, some even more nervous-looking opposing fans, and we decided that all of the attention must be very heavy. The shot went up, and every eye followed the ball, but we stayed focused on the player at the line. The shot went in, and we focused on the moment of joy we witnessed the shooter experience and the sound of the cheers that erupted from the held attention of so many. And in the next instant, the attention of the gym diverted to the next moment in a string of hundreds that make up the duration of a basketball game, but the conversation continued.
“What if the shot hadn’t gone in?” my conversation partner asked.
“How many people get a chance to take that shot?” I offered back to my partner.
After a long pause, where we considered the depth of these questions, we decided that the opportunity to be in that situation is what really matters. All of the effort, dedication, and perseverance gave that player the chance to test herself in that moment. The recognition of that hard work is what led to the tension of the onlookers, and ultimately the thrill at the outcome.
The thing all those players on the court share, is that they have probably imagined that shot countless times, and have practiced and prepared to prove themselves in that moment of singular effort; but even among the players on the team, not everyone gets to be on the court for every play, and the ones on the court are not guaranteed a chance to test themselves under the weight of that collective gaze.
Ultimately, we decided that pressure is privilege.
Our conversation lasted only a few minutes, but had a lasting impact on me and, hopefully, for her, too.
When we view athletics as means to safely test your own grit and determination, it becomes clear that those instances of intense pressure are actually a privilege known by only those who choose to put themselves in front of the crowd. They do so in the hope that all of the shared support for their efforts will lift them above the noise of their heart pounding in their ears and truly highlight the communal appreciation for the work they have put in to improving their skills.