Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Illustration for article titled Why Do Players Choke? Oddly Enough, Because They Hate Losing.

The New Yorker poached science writer Jonah Lehrer from Wired, and what do you know? His second piece is sports, and it is timely. Lehrer seeks to explain the plague of every duffer and NBA superstar since the beginning of time: Why do we choke? Why do we freeze up under pressure? Why do things that comes so naturally seem so hard when it really matters? There's an answer, if not one answer, and it suggests that "clutch" is a very real thing.


The short answer is this, and you're well within your rights to visualize LeBron, even though the science is universal. An athlete wants so desperately to win, that he is overcome by fear of losing. The loss-aversion mentally outweighs the incentive in victory, and the player fails specifically because they're terrified to fail.

It turns out we humans do this thing where we count a reward as ours to lose, even before we've won it. That's the conclusion from this report in science journal Neuron, which had participants complete tasks with varying rewards, while researchers stared at their brains. The higher the reward, the more the balls shrivel as participants contemplate losing it. With a reward as big as, say, a first NBA championship, the stress causes overthinking, and the conscious mind takes over tasks (like arm angle on jumpers) that are better off being performed by unconscious muscle memory. You shoot the ball, which you've done a thousand times, but you're too busy thinking "what if it doesn't go in?"

We're picking on LeBron because it's fun, but there's no statistical evidence that he suffers from this any more than anyone else. But would it change your opinion of him, even just a little, if the reason he hasn't won is because he hates losing more than anything on earth? Isn't that why we all love Jordan?

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