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January 10, 2014 1:13 PM   Subscribe

Does the significance of a game really affect performance? Is having experience at higher levels a deciding factor in outcomes? Because I'd think that professional athletes don't get to where they are without the kind of focus that makes those considerations irrelevant.

This article, in mentioning why bookies are giving San Francisco a slim lead over Carolina, says
It could also factor in the 49ers’ recent playoff experience. Since 2011, the Niners have played six postseason games (record: 4-2), while the Panthers haven’t appeared in the postseason since Jan. 10, 2009.
Can that really make a difference? Just because coaches and players have experience at these higher-level games, where the other team hasn't, shouldn't professionals be immune to those kinds of considerations?

Or is there some fundamental thing in our lizard brains that causes us to think and act differently under different scrutiny or pressure?
posted by colin_l to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
For a single point of data, consider how sprinters only achieve their best times in the gold medal race.
posted by blue t-shirt at 1:31 PM on January 10


I know of some very top level music competitions where they used to have the winner play immediately after the announcement of the winner.

They stopped doing it because the quality of the performances was so consistently bad.

Basically, no matter what nerves of a steel a performer might have (and you would think nerves of steel would be a requirement for winning a several weeks long competition with numerous rounds, hours of repertoire required, numerous performances under very trying and varied circumstances, etc) they found that putting them through a Miss America-style high-pressure, high visibility winner's announcement and then having them sit down three minutes later and try to perform was a recipe for disaster.

In short, I'd say yes: Being put into a different situation and difference type of pressure or scrutiny can definitely affect performance. It is very mental and very situational, and if the performers THINK they are under scrutiny or pressure, and THINK this this pressure/scrutiny is somehow different from the regular season, then they are and it is.
posted by flug at 1:33 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


There's significantly more pressure on players and coaches during high stakes games.

After being named MVP for the American League Championship Series, Red Sox pitcher Koji Uehara was asked what it felt like to be pitching those final outs of the series. He responded, "I felt like I was going to throw up."

He didn't throw up, though. He struck out the batters.

It was very apparent throughout the ALCS and then the World Series that there were some Red Sox players who thrived under the pressure and some who couldn't hack it. In their hiring decisions leading up to the season, the Red Sox often spoke about hiring people with Post Season (playoff / World Series) experience, because it is a different level of pressure that requires its own set of skills and strengths.
posted by alms at 1:51 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


In at least one insignificant starcraft 2 game, a major player essentially threw the match on live tv, which caused a mini-scandal.

It seems to me that is could rather easily be tested in with a competitive 1v1 game where players are ranked with an Elo score so you know the expected results. You create a tournament with cash prizes in a format that results in a lot of games that have no effect on the payouts and see how the actual results match with expected results. I guess chess would be ideal for this.
posted by empath at 2:20 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


I think the sprinting one is a special case. They run faster because the higher level of competition pushes them to run faster, but I don't think it is the same as what the asker is describing. Running, especially in something like the 100m, involves more pacing yourself against the competitors. I'd also guess that runners are more likely to leave a little I. The tank she. They are racing against more middling competition than they are in a situation where they know every runner in the race is capable of winning.

Look to baseball, whose fans obsess over this kind of question. There have been a great many analyses of the myth of clutch hitting by the sabermetrics crew, the most famous being "Is David Ortiz a Clutch Hitter?"
posted by synecdoche at 3:01 PM on January 10


For a single point of data, consider how sprinters only achieve their best times in the gold medal race.

I think athletes at those levels arrange their training specifically so they'll peak during competition, which confounds any psychological effect from the significance of the event.
posted by stebulus at 3:54 PM on January 10


Thanks all, good stuff. And the starcraft thing reminds me of Ender's Game, the whole point of which was not letting the kids know they were doing it for real.
posted by colin_l at 4:01 PM on January 10


Baseball is easy to analyze, and it turns out for ball players there's no such thing as "clutch". Over large samples players perform the same during high pressure situations as they do in regular games. The players we think of as "clutch" are generally good players who are on good teams so have had lots of opportunities to perform well in big moments.

I'm pretty sure the same thing was found in basketball players' shooting percentages, but I can't find a link right now.

bookies are giving San Francisco a slim lead over Carolina

Keep in mind that the line doesn't necessarily reflect what the book thinks is going to happen. If enough bettors believe that the 49ers are "clutch" then the line will reflect that, even if it has no basis in reality.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 5:01 PM on January 10 [2 favorites]


As a perpetually frustrated Philadelphia Eagles fan, I've always thought of Donovan McNabb as being the poster child for performing poorly under pressure. If you look at the game logs of his postseason career year by year they go like this.

Won wildcard, played poorly in divisional.
Won wildcard, won divisional, played poorly in NFC championship.
Won divisional, played poorly in NFC championship.
Won divisional, played poorly in NFC championship.
Won divisional, won NFC championship, played poorly in Super Bowl.

Obviously it's only one player and there are a ton of confounding variables, but to me it always seemed like he was the type of guy who struggled whenever he went up a level and then needed more chances to get over that hump. I always thought that had the Eagles made it back to the Super Bowl the following year, they would have won. (but unfortunately that was the year Terrell Owens had his meltdown)
posted by cali59 at 6:26 PM on January 10


It could also factor in the 49ers’ recent playoff experience. Since 2011, the Niners have played six postseason games (record: 4-2), while the Panthers haven’t appeared in the postseason since Jan. 10, 2009.

This sounds more like one of those things that sportswriters make up when they don't quite know why something is, akin to the way you'll sometimes hear on financial news, "The Dow rose 50 points after the president said he really liked Americans." Those two things probably aren't related.

In baseball there are some Mr. Octobers out there, but most guys do just as well in the postseason as they do in the regular season (or much worse).
posted by Luminiferous Ether at 8:00 PM on January 10 [1 favorite]


David Foster Wallace agreed with you, I think. He argues that a great athlete's ability to "shut off the Iago-like voice of the self" in clutch situations is what makes sports memoirs so boring.
posted by danteGideon at 3:24 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


Watch some Master's golf to see the effect pressure can have on the very best players. I think it's more pronounced in slower paced games like baseball and golf where the athletes have much more time to think about what they are about to do.
posted by meta87 at 6:53 AM on January 11


Baseball is easy to analyze, and it turns out for ball players there's no such thing as clutch.

The articles I've read about clutch performance in baseball define clutch by the characteristics of an at bat within a single game. This question is about a different kind of pressure: the pressure that comes from playing a high stakes game. Though the two are related, there are big differences. A high stakes game lasts hours and can literally be a childhood dream come true, the culmination of decades of work. By contrast, a clutch hitting situation lasts seconds or minutes and the stakes really aren't that high for someone who plays 160 games a year.

It would be interesting to see sabermetric analysis of post-season play, and whether the conclusion is the same as it is for regular season clutch hitting.
posted by alms at 10:14 AM on January 11


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