Pressure comes in a variety of ways in all types of activities. Bridge players are not immune to this and may also feel pressure when playing an event. Whether it is the pressure of leading the event, the pressure of expectations, time pressure to finish because you are a slow player or have slow opponents, or simply the pressure you put on yourself to do well. All of us have probably felt pressure in some activity we have undertaken at some time in our lives, and learning how to deal with this will help you to perform at your best.
Think about how many times you have made a basic error and thought afterwards: “How could I have done that?” At those times it might simply have been you were feeling some pressure because of the situation you were in at the time. The pressure causes a lapse in concentration and errors occur because our mind is distracted and not on the task at hand.
In this hand from a state bridge event we were running second and played the leading pair. My partner (West) thought we were behind at this point in the match and pushed hard to get us to slam in hearts. In reality we were ahead but perceptions during a match can often be misleading. Being in contention can also create its own kind of pressure and make you take a decision you might not otherwise take in a more relaxed setting. Here’s what happened:
1 – Natural slam try asking about range and keycards
2 – Two keycards, no Q♥, better than minimum opening
On the lead of the king of spades, the slam is doomed to fail. All East needs to do is keep the ace of clubs and a spade. What happened at the table on the run of all the hearts but one, was East needed to find six discards. Perhaps he didn’t have a good picture of declarer’s hand or maybe he lost concentration and didn’t pay enough attention to his partner’s discards and count the hand out properly. Perhaps East had placed declarer with a single spade and four diamonds (or perhaps even five diamonds and a club void?). For whatever reason he misjudged the defence completely and threw two spades and four clubs which left this end position:
Failing to keep parity with dummy’s clubs (and failing to keep a spade) was a fatal mistake which allowed the contract to make when the seven of clubs became high for declarer’s twelfth trick.
This was an uncharacteristic error from a good quality pair. Keeping diamonds was irrational: if declarer had diamond length she could always have ruffed any losers in the dummy, so partner must be placed with the queen.
What causes a good player in a leading position in a competition to make this type of error? Is it the pressure from being in a leading position that causes the player to make an error which at other times wouldn’t occur? Is it some other distraction that happened earlier in the day that meant the player wasn’t concentrating as they should have been? Sometimes it might be a combination of factors. The point here is that when you find yourself in a winning position, the increased pressure can cause errors which might otherwise not occur.
Sometimes, players need a method to help them stay focussed on the match and less focussed on their current placing or the situation they are in. One tactic that is commonly used in sport is to segment your performance and set segment goals for matches. For example, a segment goal could be ‘count the hand out before playing to trick one’.
How a simple goal like this might apply will depend upon your level of skill and expertise:
- For a basic level player as declarer in a contract, this could mean thinking about the opening lead before you play to trick one, and trying to count that suit before playing – think about what is in the leader’s hand, what is in your hand, what is in dummy, what is in the fourth player’s hand. You have a lot of information from the bidding, or from the card that is led, so you can often get a good picture of the distribution by undertaking this simple exercise.
- For an intermediate player, counting can advance to considering the shape of the whole hand of your partner or the opponent based on the lead, what you can see of dummy and the bidding.
- For a more advanced player, this thinking could consider what inferences can be drawn from this lead, as opposed to some other lead that might have been made. Throughout the hand continuing to consider what card is played, and by deduction what this implies continues the focus on this segment goal.
Had the defender done this basic task on the hand in question they would have worked out how to get the defence right. One might say that you should do this anyway, however when under pressure it is easy to get sloppy or to think a hand is easy and play quickly or without proper care causing a simple error which is impossible to recover from.
The use of segment goals can provide the mind with a task which helps with keeping our thoughts focussed and our concentration sharp. More importantly, they will help embed basic techniques so you perform them every time on every hand.
© First published in Australian Bridge. April 2019.