Athletes coping with the pressure

Published 9:29 pm Tuesday, July 6, 2010

As someone who spends a lot more time and energy being a sports fan than I should, it sort of goes without saying I find a lot of things interesting and exciting when it comes to sports.

That goes for the athletes, the strategies of a game, what makes fans fanatic and what makes big moments big. Any of these categories can apply to everything from a World Cup or Super Bowl to a Little League tournament or local golf event.

One of the most fascinating displays to see in person is when an athlete repeatedly proves he can raise his level of play, even under great pressure.

This is true for any age or level. In some way, of course, there is a higher degree of pressure if the World Cup final boils down to one final penalty kick with two billion people watching and a whole nation living über-vicariously through one player.

When you think about it, though, in the last few seconds of a high school state championship game, those players must care nearly as much about that moment, and they have to try to cope with the same feelings.

How does an athlete go from excellent to elite when pressure and nerves should normally hinder her thoughts, and therefore her athletic ability? It’s especially fascinating to watch someone who does it far more often than not.

Brinson Paolini is still far from being a worldwide superstar, but he is one of the best young golfers in the country.

Paolini, of Virginia Beach and currently a rising sophomore at Duke, was the ACC’s Freshman of the Year this past golf season.

Paolini won his third straight VSGA State Amateur Championship last weekend at Belle Haven Country Club in Alexandria. And he did it in the same fashion that he won the same tournament last summer at Cedar Point Country Club.

Last year in the final 36-hole match, Paolini was five holes down with nine to play before winning seven of those nine holes.

On Saturday, Paolini was two down with seven holes to go before rallying. Often in sports, being great at the right time is better than just being a great athlete.

Paolini’s the first three-time champion of this event. Great Virginia golfers Curtis Strange, Vinny Giles, John Rollins and Chandler Harper won two State Amateur titles each.

Paolini might or might not get to truly elite status in his already brilliant career; there’s not much of a way to tell. Given what he’s proven though, it wouldn’t make sense to bet against him.