Teammates mobbed senior Renee Abernathy at home plate after a game-winning homer. (Vicky Graff Photo)
PRESSURE: the burden of physical or mental distress
There’s a wee bit of pressure on the Kentucky Softball team this weekend. The No. 8 Cats take on the No. 7/6-ranked Razorbacks in a series that will determine first place in the SEC. To add fuel to the fire, the Wildcats are also traveling west to Fayetteville, Arkansas. And we all know how difficult it is eking out wins on the brutal SEC road gauntlet.
“It definitely has the mentality,” Kentucky head coach Rachel Lawson answered, when asked if her team has what it takes to win on the road. “I think the thing is that you have to be good coming from behind. You have to be okay being in pressure situations.”
Kentucky is 7 – 3 on the road this year, with several of those victories being the come-from-behind variety.
“We’ve actually been behind in so many games this year, and our ability to fight back and to get back into games has happened over and over and over again,” Lawson acknowledged. “From those experiences—while not ideal and we’ve taken some losses because of it—we’ve also come back to win some pretty big games as well. I just think the fact that we’re resilient is what you need to be good on the road.”
Lawson, now in her 15th season as Kentucky’s head coach, knows a thing or two about the pressure of winning ball games. She’s been a wizard at developing player talent while growing the UK softball program into national relevance. She certainly cares for her players, but she also knows who signs her paycheck. She balances the two quite well.
All coaches feel pressure. Some of them deal with it better than others. I think it’s fair to say that the pressure got to Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari this year. By now you’re probably sick of hearing about how his team was upset by Saint Peters in the first round of this year’s NCAA basketball tournament. When the pressure ratcheted up on the Wildcats, Calipari’s crew (other than Oscar Tshiebwe) folded like a cheap suit.
Leading up to the contest, Calipari talked incessantly about having his team play free and loose. When the ball was tipped, however, Kentucky played just the opposite. Turnovers, rushed shots, and missed free throws with the game on the line were symptomatic of players who looked like they were shackled with the weight of the world. Rather than playing with the will to win, they instead wilted like wallflowers.
That’s on Calipari. His entire mantra since he stepped on campus has been “Players First.” It’s a wonderful recruiting pitch. However, you can’t prioritize it over the PROGRAM as a whole. You can’t spend eleven months of the year—the entire offseason, preseason, and regular season—preparing players for the NBA. Then March rolls around, and suddenly it’s all about winning ball games for the old State U. You can’t flip the narrative from “players first” to “let’s win a championship first” and not expect your team to cave under pressure.
Perhaps Calipari should take a page from Rachel Lawson’s book in dealing with pressure. Granted, the pressure of heading the Kentucky Softball program is a totally different animal from the rigors of UK Basketball. But athletes are athletes, and Lawson’s understanding of how athletes respond to pressure could go a long way in making sure the basketball team avoids future embarrassment.
“I just think that most people cannot respond to pressure,” Coach Lawson readily admitted. “The way that you frame pressure is key in today’s day and age. And I think it’s the key to getting the player to reach her potential. Early on I put a lot of pressure on [sophomore shortstop] Erin Coffel to make the plays a little more than she does. And she’s the type of person you don’t need to put pressure to make plays because she puts too much of it on herself. So, I wish I would have handled her a little bit differently early on.”
It’s not like the players of today are soft when it comes to pressure. It’s just that their priorities can be a bit misplaced. Oftentimes, it’s more about “me and my stats” than it is “the team.” With that type of approach, it’s no wonder the muscles get tight when the stage gets too big.
“Now obviously, it’s easier to come back when you have someone like Kayla Kawolik on your team,” Lawson continued. “Or Renee Abernathy does well under pressure. Coffel is good under pressure. So is [Lauren] Johnson. Again, a lot of players who are really good under pressure. I think the thing about this team is that if you look at our stats individually right now, I would say we only have one or two players looking like they would be All-Conference in terms of individual stats. And I think they’re all very aware of it. They all know that if we’re going to go anywhere, we have to go there together. And so, I think they never quit because they’re always playing for their teammate [and] with their teammate. I think that’s a key to keep fighting in that you know that you’re doing it with your friend and buddy, and you just don’t want to let them down.”
It all sounds so simple. The key to managing pressure and not wilting under the bright lights of the big stage is to play for your team. Forget about your stats, your pedigree, or even your future. Stay in the moment. It’s not really Players First after all. It’s TEAM FIRST—ALL THE TIME, RIGHT FROM THE GET-GO!
“And that’s the character of this team,” Lawson reminded us. “We do have superstars, but they don’t act like superstars. They just play well together, and they like each other. They’re having fun more than anything.”
We’ll see if that’s enough to handle the pressure. Here’s the schedule for the series this weekend. Hope you’ll tune in.
Game 1 – Friday, April 15 | 5:30 p.m. ET (moved up 90 minutes due to projected inclement weather) | SEC Network+
Game 2 – Saturday, April 16 | 8 p.m. ET | ESPN 2
Game 3 – Easter Sunday, April 17 | Noon ET | SEC Network
For a nostalgic look back on UK Basketball and some associated life lessons, check out my latest book, KENTUCKY PASSION—available in bookstores and online at https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669