In Tense Situations, Some Play Even Better, Some Even Worse

My brother (the non-blogger) once told me that there’s science that says in tense, high stakes situations some people perform even better and some perform even worse, not much middle ground. I’ve always liked to think that I’m the kind of person who performs even better when the stakes are higher.

Tonight at a basketball game in east Oakland with 20 seconds to go we were up by 3 points. I inbounded the ball, called for it right back, got fouled, and knocked down two charity tosses to make it a two possession game. A lot of this has to do with a mindset.

I distinctly recall my first sales pitch to a big group of people. I was like 13, standing in my suit in a cold parking lot outside of a City Hall. My teeth were chattering and muscles shaking. I could hardly speak without stuttering over my words because of nervousness. I don’t remember a thing from the pitch (other then when I described the mySQL database powering the software as "robust" – what a weird thing to remember) but I’m told I did a good job. And we had a client to prove it.

In the closing seconds of the game, do you want the ball?

5 comments on “In Tense Situations, Some Play Even Better, Some Even Worse
  • This is something I’ve been thinking about. Tennis is my sport, but I also tend to perform better when the stakes are higher… or when I’m angry, oddly enough. I’m much more focused.

    If your brother tosses you a citation for the relevant science, I’d be really appreciative if you’d post it here or email it to me.

    And nice work in East Oakland.

  • I agree that when it comes to “crunch time” some have it and some don’t, but I also think players can do a few things to increase the probability of success…

    Going into this year’s baseball campaign, part of my coaching philosophy will be centered on creating “game pressure in practice situations”. Put the pressure on to perform every day (in a structured environment) so that players become used to it. The biggest obstacles pressure presents come from within the mind of the participant. If one can learn to overcome this through repetition in practice, I think they stand a better chance when the same situation arises in competition.

    Granted, it’s hard to re-create the frenzy of an actual game-style pressure situation in practice, but positive results will be determined as much by the confidence the player is gaining in that situation as by the actual physical benefits of practice.

  • What you mention is called social facilitation. What usually determines if there is a negative effect or positive effect is how difficult or how comfortable you are with the action.

    I’m sure you’ve practiced free throws for years, hundreds at a time. Plus, it’s not exactly a “hard/difficult” task, unlike, say a final exam on “rocket science”.

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  • I’m a pretty bad basketball player. But I’ve made more than my share of game-winning shots.

    Why? I’m willing to take them, and I’m willing to accept failure.

    In tense situations, the fear of failure can be paralyzing. But if you can learn to let go of those feelings and focus instead on the possibility of success, you can perform a whole lot better.

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