Under Pressure

I woke up last Sunday morning to two sports stories that seemed oddly related.  The first concerned the women’s soccer team being defeated by Sweden.  The second concerned Simone Biles’ return to competitive gymnastics and her winning a meet in Illinois.  She might be preparing for another Olympics but with a different outlook this time.

Most sports fans will remember Simone Biles’ rocky performances at the Tokyo Olympics.  Expected to win at least four gold medals, she won one individual bronze.  Most American fans who’ve been following the Women’s World Cup will agree that the American team, expected to win another World Cup as they had done four times before, was having a lackluster tournament even before their defeat on Sunday.

It seems like an opportune time to consider the pressure that we place on our athletes.  Of course, all athletes, no matter what country they represent, feel the passionate desire of their fans for them to win.  To a certain level, such support can boost the performance of athletes.  But then a line seems to be crossed, and the athletes feel the expectation of fans and their country as a crushing weight.

There were clues aplenty that this over-the-top pressure affected both Simone Biles at the Olympics and the US Women’s Soccer team in the World Cup.  We can probably all remember the stories and ads that ran repeatedly before the Olympics, labeling Biles as “Goat” for “greatest of all time.”  Mikaela Shiffrin was similarly described in the last Winter Olympics, where she was expected to win five gold medals but came away with none.  

And how was this summer’s Women’s World Cup described in the US media?  It was “The U.S. versus the World.”  Let’s think about the pressure that comes with that wording.  The Women’s World Cup wasn’t the US team versus the world, but rather the US team versus the Vietnam team, the Dutch team, the Portuguese team, and finally the Swedish team.  A series of serious challenges with well-prepared teams, challenging “hills” for any team to overcome, were lumped together and presented by the media as a “mountain”—the whole world—that the US team had to defeat.

The media in the case of Biles, Shiffrin, and the US Women’s soccer team did these athletes a great disservice by writing the ending of the story before the story even began.  All of those athletes were made aware by promos and interviews that the only acceptable outcome of their Olympic and World Cup experiences was total victory.  It was gold or go home. 

And they all went home.  I wonder if we’ve learned our lesson.  The nature of sport is its unpredictability.  That is what makes sports so enjoyable and mesmerizing.  The ball doesn’t always bounce the same way; the kick, throw, or jump of an athlete can vary, and a good team on any given day can defeat a better team.

Let me suggest that there is still a good reason why this year’s Women’s World Cup is not a complete loss. No team has contributed more than the US team to making women’s soccer the popular global sport it has become.  The four previous World Cups won by the US squad have clearly motivated other teams to play at a higher level.

Might it not be the case that this year’s US team was as talented as previous victorious US teams, with the difference in this World Cup being the improvement of teams from other countries?

If this were what this year’s US team accomplished, motivating other teams and, in the process, improving the quality of women’s soccer globally, should this not be something to celebrate?