Why Players Choke

(This is the first of a two-part article)

Unfortunately, I’m a Mets fan, and if you’ve followed their 2007 season, you may have heard about “the greatest collapse in baseball history” — their loss of the NL Eastern Division title despite being in first place by seven games with only 17 to play. There have been many excuses given for their demise, but to lose that many games in such a short span has more to do than what’s happening on the field — it’s something in their minds.

Interestingly, the “other” team in New York — the Yankees — also had a disappointing end to their season, albeit in the playoffs. One player in particular that everyone has focused on is Alex Rodriguez, who is perhaps the greatest baseball player of all-time, yet cannot duplicate his regular season production in the postseason. His playoff malaise has reached epic proportions: in his last 59 postseason at-bats as a Yankee, he accumulated only 8 hits (.136 average). Among those 59 ABs, 27 came with runners on base — and he was 0-for-27 with 11 strikeouts.

How could the most talented man in baseball be so horrific? Yes, players go through slumps but are we to believe that A-Rod coincidentally hits a slump in the first week of every October? Or could have have an issue that it theorized about the Mets — that it’s something in his head?

In short, did these players choke?

Regardless of what you want to believe about Alex Rodriguez and the New York Mets, the fact remains: athletes DO choke. Many players when the “pressure” is on, play at less than their ability. It’s a mental thing. But why does it happen, and how can it be avoided?

Rising to the Occasion – Myth?

Some players have no problem with “pressure”; in fact, they thrive on it. Reggie Jackson — particularly after his 5-HR World Series in 1977 — was nicknamed “Mr. October” for his ability to hit well in the postseason. Current Yankee Derek Jeter has been identified as a “clutch” player, and his teammates Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, and Paul O’Neill could “rise to the occasion”. Jack Morris was known as a “big game” pitcher, as was Curt Schilling and Bob Gibson. Why are some players seemingly able to “elevate” their game in “important” situations while others fail?

First, you have to take “clutch” performance for what it really is: a player achieving his potential in what is perceived as an “important” situation. The aforementioned players — Jeter, Jackson, Schilling, etc. — were all very good to outstanding players in the regular season. If you look at their career postseason numbers, they’re not significantly different from their career regular season numbers (generally speaking). So they didn’t necessarily “elevate” their game as much as they maintained it. An example: Reggie Jackson had a career .262 average and hit one homer every 17.5 ABs in regular season; in the postseason, he hit .278 with one homer every 15.6 ABs. Considering that he came to bat nearly 10,000 times in 21 MLB regular seasons, and his postseason numbers cover a comparatively measly 281 at-bats, I think it’s safe to say that “Mr. October” wasn’t significantly better than “Mr. April”, “Mr. May”, etc.

And yes, there are some cases of players who played remarkably better in the postseason, but their stats are based on a small sample of work — and could have been affected more by a hot streak than a mental elevation. The bottom line is, players who routinely “come through in the clutch” are the same players who regularly out-perform their peers.

Identifying and Defining Pressure

So if a Reggie Jackson was great in October because he was great from April to September as well, what is the problem with A-Rod? Why can’t he maintain his extremely high level of performance when “it counts”?

It’s simple, really: he, like nearly everyone else, identifies the games in October as being “more important”. As a result, he buys into the theory that he must “elevate his game”, when in fact all he needs to do is continue doing the same things he always does. The minute a person tries to go above and beyond what he or she is capable of doing — in any sport, and nearly any activity — that person is doomed to failure. For example, how would a featherweight boxer do against a heavyweight? Can you trust an auto mechanic to fix the space shuttle? Do you think a poet can ace a CPA exam?

This is also called “pressing” — putting more pressure on oneself than is necessary to complete a task. Many players look at a particular ballgame, and believe they have to “step it up”. Unless they’ve been dogging it, nothing could be further from the truth. You can’t do more than you’re capable of doing, and if you haven’t been performing at your peak level, that’s a problem with the past, not the future. For example, Alex Rodriguez had just completed one of the greatest offensive seasons in New York history — whatever he did to swat 54 HRs and drive in 156 RBI from April to September would have been more than acceptable in October. Just because it’s the ALDS doesn’t mean Paul Byrd will suddenly gain 10 MPH on his fastball. C.C. Sabathia won’t suddenly discover two new devastating pitches. The ball doesn’t change its size, and the fences aren’t moved back. It’s the same game, and requires the same approach, the same technique, and the same execution that had been repeated for the past six months.

Of course, it’s easy to say — much harder to overcome (for some).

In the second part of this article, we’ll dive straight into the anatomy of what causes players to choke, and how to avoid it (or, “maintain” your game).

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