THE CRUCIBLE CAULDRON
The ultimate ambition for any budding cueist is to grace the Betfred World Championship final and lift the sport’s most coveted trophy, but what is it that enables a player to stand at the base of snooker’s Everest and shoot for the summit?
Those who prosper at the elite echelons of sport have exorbitant levels of skill and natural talent. However, to succeed on the biggest occasion they must also handle the associated pressures.
Whether it be the World Cup final, the Wimbledon final, the last round at the Open or the final of the World Championship – the level of strain on a player’s psyche is at its strongest when the most coveted prize is at stake.
This afternoon John Higgins and Mark Williams will step out for the showpiece match at the Crucible competing not only for their dream title, but for a top prize of £425,000. That bumper payout will be the most lucrative in the history of snooker. An unprecedented amount of pressure will be placed upon the shoulders of the two competitors. So how do they deal with that burden and play to their best ability?
Chartered Sports Psychologist Steven Sylvester has been involved with snooker for many years. He worked with Peter Ebdon when he won his only world title to date in 2002 and has also worked with 2005 World Champion Shaun Murphy and two-time Crucible finalist Ali Carter.
In his book ‘Detox Your Ego’, Sylvester asserts that for a sportsperson to be able to truly fulfil their potential under the most extreme pressure, they must look past their egotistical dreams and find a cause beyond themselves to play for.
Sylvester said: “My first line of questioning to any player about to take part in their maiden world final is about their dreams. They are in good form and their preparation has been good, because they have made it to the final. All of that is fine, it is now about whether they can take that final step and make their impossible dream a reality.
“Invariably most players have thought about what it would be like to win the title and they will go through and relay their dream to me. Then I would relate that to the situation which is ahead of them. Now you are in the final, how is that actualised? It is absolutely scary. The fact that you can actually achieve your dream provides more stress than anything.
“It is about being able to accept the emotions of the occasion and find a way to go beyond the stress, for a purpose that is bigger than you. There would be conversations about what can be achieved as World Champion, who can be helped and how you can give back to the sport.”
Sylvester also believes that the current climate of the World Snooker Tour provides conditions which allow young talent to thrive under pressure. The packed out calendar gives competitors the opportunity to acclimatise to pressurised situations.
He added: “Given the standard of snooker now, with tournaments week in week out, the younger players are no longer fearful of the Crucible like they once were. In the past it would be very hard for a qualifier to do well because they simply wouldn’t have had the experience in front of the TV cameras. Now they are used to these sorts of conditions.”
In some instances it can help to be naive to the significance of competing in snooker’s biggest match. In 2005, Shaun Murphy burst to prominence at the Crucible. The then 22-year-old was ranked 48th in the world and had to come through qualifying just to make it to Sheffield. He went on to reach the final and defeated Matthew Stevens 18-16 in a thrilling encounter.
Murphy said: “Everything was new for me in 2005. It was the first time I had even won a match at the Crucible. In a funny kind of way that helped me to approach the final as if it meant nothing, where in reality in meant everything. That is the holy grail of sports psychology. I had no battle scars, no memories of the bad losses. I was able to go out and play with a freedom.
“You would expect to feel less nerves going into a second or third world final, but you don’t. Playing in the world final is the biggest day of your life, other than the birth of your children or your wedding. It is quite challenging, but it is the pinnacle for us.”
There is one man more versed in the rigours of the world final than any other alive. Stephen Hendry is the undisputed king of the Crucible, with seven world titles to his name from nine appearances in snooker’s biggest match. The Scot holds the record for most World Championship wins, as well as the most ranking titles with 36, although Ronnie O’Sullivan is currently in hot pursuit on 33.
Following his maiden Crucible victory in 1990, Hendry never looked back and his domination of the 1990s included a streak of five consecutive titles between 1992-1996. He had a natural hunger and desire for title accumulation, combined with a rare knack of raising his game under intense pressure.
“I obviously had something that nobody else had,” said Hendry. “It’s hard to explain, I just think you either have it or you don’t: the ability to play your best snooker in the biggest arena, under the biggest pressure on the biggest occasion. I always found that it was very easy to get in the zone and get in the psychological place I needed to be in at the World Championship. I always went there with that attitude.
“All through my career I managed to play my best on the biggest occasions. My first win in 1990, I had already beaten John Parrott in the semi-final and that made me world number one. I was just totally relaxed and totally confident going into the final against Jimmy White. I didn’t think I was going to lose. I would be nervous in the dressing room before I went out, but once I was in the arena it is just the best place to play snooker.”
The man who ended Hendry’s long winning sequence, which covered 29 consecutive matches, was Ireland’s Ken Doherty. He beat Hendry in the 1997 final and Doherty believes that the fact he was up against one of the greatest competitors of all time helped him to deal with the occasion itself.
“To be honest I was very relaxed,” Doherty recalls. “I just thought this was my opportunity. I was trying to stop Stephen winning six in a row, so I was a complete underdog. I tried to use that to my advantage and I enjoyed that role. Nobody was expecting me to win, so I just went out there and gave it my best.
“I was even laughing and joking with the crowd from my chair. I could see myself winning and visualised it. I wish I could have replicated that more times and lifted the trophy in at least one of my other two finals. However, there is no bigger buzz than the one I had during that World Championship. I dreamed my whole life about doing it and to lift that trophy was amazing.”
Graeme Dott faced Ronnie O’Sullivan in his first final in 2004, losing 18-8. He returned two years later to win his first and only world title to date with an emotional 18-14 win over Peter Ebdon. Dott went on to compete in his third Crucible final in 2010, where he succumbed 18-13 to Neil Robertson. Scotland’s Dott believes that he has become more comfortable competing in snooker’s most famous arena as he has garnered more experience.
“It is incredibly surreal the first time you play in it and very emotional. When I played Ronnie I was a massive underdog but against Peter it was a more even game,” said Dott. “It is the same with anything in life. Once you have done it, then it doesn’t feel as bad when you do it again. By the time I played Neil it certainly felt a lot more normal.
“You try to treat it all just the same as any other match. But always in the back of my mind was the fact I could remember being a kid and watching the final at home. I would be watching it on a black and white TV while playing on a six-foot table in front of it. Now I was actually playing in it. The final of the World Championship is a massive thing for all snooker players so it is hard to treat it as normal.”