6400: Sports Psych 101

May 17, 2019
By Grant Lindsley

Sports Psych 101 – Why athletes have to believe clichés

Imagine that you’re on the field: it’s double-overtime, and you can win the game by making a simple catch.

Now imagine dropping that pass, as I did against the DC Breeze on Saturday. You don’t dwell on your mistake in the moment, because you have to play defense. But you do replay the scene in your head that night.

And the next day.

And the next.

Or do you?

After an error, you have two options: let your mind wrap itself in a knot that makes you timid the next time you step on the field, or move on.

There’s a third option, too, I guess, which I hesitate to include, because there’s no place for it: make excuses. Explain to everyone who’ll listen that some outside force caused you to mess up. This is an extension of tying yourself up in a knot, in that the knot’s tied so tightly that you can’t even bring yourself to take responsibility: I tripped on something, the stadium lights got in my eyes, the throw hit me in the… hands… too hard.

How do you move on?

Let it go, keep a short-term memory, focus on the next two seconds, stay present, et cetera. The advice is a lot easier to offer than to take.

But you have to believe, cliché as it is. Unlike the fan, the player can’t enjoy the luxury of deep reflection. The player must move on to the next play, the next opponent, the next training session, lest he or she become paralyzed in thought. David Foster Wallace explained it better than anyone else:

“It may well be that we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied. And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it – and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.” *

To resist the temptation to dwell on failure, athletes have to resist the other temptation to linger on success.

Consider a couple moments from the current NBA playoffs. Watch Damian Lillard’s face after his series-winning shot for the Portland Trailblazers against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The camera zooms in on him under the pile of celebrating teammates and fans. He stares down the camera. He’s the calmest person in the building, which makes sense when you hear what he’s said about pressure. His composure, his immunity to the immensity of the moment, regardless of the outcome, is what prepares him to execute when the game’s on the line.

Great players treat big moments like ordinary moments, which also means learning to treat ordinary moments with extraordinary focus. Every play in a game carries equal weight, but it’s easy to heap extra meaning onto the end.

There’s a psychological term for this. The Peak-end rule says that we tend to define events by their ending or climax rather than their entirety. The heuristic works double-time in sports, where the peak often is the end.

Which brings me back to doink-ing the game-winning pass on Saturday. I’m moving on. Yes, we still won because DC called a timeout they apparently didn’t have, and Jack Williams caught a pass like the one I dropped, but I’m not dwelling on the victory, either.

To use another example from the NBA playoffs, I guarantee you won’t hear Kawhi Leonard talking about his series-winning shot from the last round. He screams in the moment, which is rare for the stoic Leonard. After that, look at his face.

He’s back to business.


* Foster Wallace, David. “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.”