Sports tournaments make for some interesting lessons on leadership and performance, and these apply equally to business and life overall. Last week, I had the chance to observe first hand the dynamics of winning and losing at the Women’s U18 European Championship Basketball tournament in Romania.

Whereas the early rounds of competition were about separating out the more talented teams from the less, the later rounds were all about the differences in their ability to perform under pressure.  That’s where it got really interesting.  As we watched equally talented teams either wilt under the pressure or rise to the occasion, the word that kept cropping up from the players themselves to the coaches and also my fellow spectators was:  composure.  This seemed to encapsulate the difference between winning and losing at the top levels of the competition.

So how to define composure?  The dictionary says it is a “serene, self-controlled state of mind; calmness; tranquillity.”  In the context of tournament level competition, it means the ability to keep a cool head and perform to your full potential under pressure; it’s about being able to make and execute on the same decisions in the same way when under pressure as when there is no pressure.

We saw teams get frazzled and fall apart as the competition got tougher (“they didn’t keep their composure”) whereas they had played as a well-oiled unit earlier in the tournament.  We watched individual players work hard to get the ball up the court and finally break free for a lay-up only to miss (“she didn’t have composure”) while others seemed to revel in the intensity of the moment and make heroic shots against all odds.

The star of the winning team is one such player.  A 5’6” point guard, she is a good ball handler but certainly not the best, and very athletic and fit, but at a notable height disadvantage to the rest of the field.  Yet she was the one who sparked the team and muscled her way through multiple defenders to score key points when the other team was trying to pull away.  She played virtually the entire final match and was the game’s leading scorer, making over 70% of her shots in contrast to 30% for the rest of the players combined.

Interestingly, the semi-final and final games were her best of the tournament.  It was as though she was finally entering her comfort zone when the pressure was really on.  This young woman clearly loves to perform and openly embraced her chance to shine.

What she has, her “special sauce”, is that she blossoms under pressure.  It was a joy to watch her play with such abandon, completely unfazed by bigger, stronger, and more talented (but less confident) competitors.  She trusted herself to rise to the occasion, and rise she did.

Imagine what we could achieve if each of us could be so much in our element when the going gets tough — if our environment could have no adverse effect on our performance at that crucial client meeting or when speaking in front of hundreds of our peers.

So how do we improve our composure?  How can we sustain peak performance under increasing pressure?  Part of this ability is intrinsic, and some people are simply born with it.  But fortunately for the rest of us, much of it can be acquired through self-awareness, experience and training.  More on that to follow.