A Tradition of Choking Under Pressure in Sports

Data from major soccer tournaments suggest a sports team’s history of failure can impact the performance of players — even those who didn’t participate in the futile earlier effort.
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Data from major soccer tournaments suggest a sports team’s history of failure can impact the performance of players — even those who didn’t participate in the futile earlier effort.

In poignantly predictable baseball news, the Chicago Cubs have once again failed to reach the postseason. Some fans speak of the team as being cursed, while others dismiss that notion as an excuse for poor play or bad management.

After all, they ask, why would the failure of one group of guys in, say, 1969 (when they famously collapsed in September) or 1984 (when they just missed becoming National League champions) have any impact on an entirely different group of players in 2011?

Well, a new study of soccer tournaments finds a team’s history of failure can hurt the performances of its players — including those who weren’t part of the losing effort. This suggests a team’s propensity to choke in high-pressure situations may become self-perpetuating.

"This paper demonstrates, for the first time I believe, that sports teams' historical outcomes seem to affect individual players' present-day performances, even for players who were not personally part of the teams' history," said Geir Jordet of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences.

A research team led by Jordet examined video footage of every penalty shootout held in two major international soccer tournaments — the World Cup and the European Championships — between 1976 and 2006. Such shootouts are used to decide a winner when two teams are tied after overtime play.

The researchers looked at the talent level of each team, plus their records in earlier games in the tournament. Then, for each of the 309 penalty kicks, they assessed a) whether the winning goal was scored, b) whether the winning goal was scored the last time the team was in this situation, and c) which members of the squad were on the team when that prior won or loss occurred.

They found teams that had lost the preceding shootout made 65.7 percent of these game-winning goals. That's far below the 85.1 percent of such goals made by those teams that had won the previous shootout. Those with no previous major penalty shootouts made the goal 76.4 percent of the time.

Intriguingly, the researchers report this pattern was “also found with players who took no personal part in the preceding games,” which had sometimes occurred years earlier. Although they hadn’t shared in the glory or shame of the past win or loss, these players' performances differed very little from those of their teammates.

"Players on teams who lost the preceding penalty shootout, but who were not personally involved in that preceding game, scored on 67.2% of their attempts, whereas players on teams who won the preceding shootout scored on 83.3%," the researchers report.

“It is unlikely that the effects found in this study merely come from the most skillful teams consistently winning and/or the least skillful teams consistently losing,” the researchers write in the British Journal of Psychology, “as the teams with preceding losses in penalty shootouts featured more high-ability players, and took more points in the preceding regular games, than the teams with preceding wins.”

In other words, having a better team on paper proved less important than the confidence-boosting knowledge that your team has had prior success in this crucial situation.

“It is possible that simply playing for a team with a history of preceding losses is accompanied by higher degrees of performance pressure,” the researchers speculate. This emotional discomfort may “compel players to hurry up their preparation in order to end the situation as quickly as possible,” they write. Conversely, “playing for a team with a history of preceding wins may be accompanied by less performance pressure and lower levels of emotional distress, making players slow down their preparation and focus more on the shot,” they add.

Of course, baseball has no eqiuvalent to the penalty shootout. But the American game presents countless opportunities to rush, and therefore blow, key plays.

Jordet's analysis focused on the impact of recent wins and losses, so his findings can’t entirely explain the Cubs’ prolonged haplessness, but in an aside that will resonate with Wrigley Field's bleacher bums, he and his colleagues point out that the stereotype that haunts a particular club can impact players’ beliefs and behavior.

“It is possible that being aware of a positive or negative label on one’s team … may affect performance positively or negatively, respectively,” they write. That "lovable losers" label may be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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