Saturday, November 04, 2006

Grace under pressure

Ernest Hemingway called it "grace under pressure." Football great Red Grange partially attributed his clutch performances to his calm mind, his ability to tune out the crowd. Physical gifts are important in athletics, but the ability to perform tasks, and do them well, in stressful situations, is perhaps the most interesting, and least understood, aspect of sports. Tom Brady, an average athlete by NFL standards, has elevated himself above the league's other QBs because of his ability to make smart decisions under the Klieg lights. In football, quarterbacks must possess psychological fitness because their decisions dictate all the action: the other players are essentially reactionary. While it is fun to watch athletes perform well, it is even more intriguing to watch them choke. Phil Mickelson's meltdown at this year's U.S. Open, Chicago Bears Rex Grossman's six-turnover performance on a mid-season Monday Night Football game against the Cardinals (the Cardinals!), and Drew Bledsoe--in another MNF game with the nation and his peers watching--throwing a dumb interception, one which cost him his starting job. While most people attribute choking to "thinking too much"--mentally going through a routine rather than simply performing it--recent studies say that choking has less to do with over-thinking, and more about distraction. Pressure co-opts working memory, leaving athletes without enough cognitive resources; the brain becomes so stressed that it can't perform--sort of like a computer with too many applications running.


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