The Jeff Wise Blog

The Mystery of Clutch Performance

A few days ago I was contacted by Mike Sielski, a Wall Street Journal reporter working on an article about New York Rangers hockey player Chris Drury. Drury hasn’t been having a very good season, but in the past he was legendary for his ability to pull of amazing feats of athleticism just when his team needed it — when the pressure was highest. Writes Sielski, in his piece which just went up today:

In Game 5 of the ’07 Eastern Conference semifinals, as a member of the Buffalo Sabres, Drury scored a tying goal with less than eight seconds left in regulation against the Rangers, lifting a rebound over goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Buffalo won the game in overtime and the series in six games, and Lundqvist still remembers shattering his stick to pieces by slamming it against a wall after Drury’s goal.

Sielski had called me to ask how it might be possible, in psychological terms, to account for such phenomenal feats of skill. I pointed out to him that my book Extreme Fear is pretty much geared to answering that question — the book is framed around the mystery of how aerobatic pilot Neil Williams managed to figure out how to save his life when his plane’s wing started to fall off at low altitude. The conclusion I reached in writing the book, I told Sielski, is that a person who is highly skilled in a particular domain can tap the automatic part of their brain to an astonishing degree even when under the sort of life-or-death pressure that shuts down the conscious mind. As Sielski quotes me in the article:

In stressful situations, certain individuals with expertise in a given field—an elite ice hockey player, for example—”can make connections automatically and quickly and effortlessly in a way that might seem impossible,” Jeff Wise, author of the book “Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger,” said in a phone interview. “They’re seeing the opportunity, the chance. They’re able to play the odds in a way a less sophisticated person wouldn’t. There is a kind of athletic intelligence that can emerge most powerfully in a clutch moment.”

As a reporter myself, I fully understand the understand the necessity of keeping quotes short and to the point, so I never expected Sielski to include the caveats that I expressed over the phone Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: sports

What Makes Sports Fans Happiest: Fear and Despair

Everyone knows that the US Soccer team is all but certain to go down in flames sometime between now and the finals of the FIFA World Cup on July 11. And for American fans, that could be wonderful thing, researchers say.

A recent study by a team at Ohio State University looked at 113 college football fans  as they watched a game between their school’s team and that of an arch rival. The subjects were asked to watch a particularly crucial game and then log their emotional state during commercial breaks. They also logged  their perception of their teams’ chance of victory. It turned out that fans who thought the game was the most enjoyable were those who were convinced at some point during the game that their team would lose – but then watched as the team turned around and managed to win. From the press release:

The results showed how important negative emotions were to enjoyment of the game.  “When people think about entertainment in general, they think it has to be fun and pleasurable.  But enjoyment doesn’t always mean positive emotions,” [said study co-author Prabu] David. “Sometimes enjoyment is derived by having the negative emotion, and then juxtaposing that with the positive emotion.”

… “You need the negative emotions of thinking your team might lose to get you in an excited, nervous state,” [study co-author Silvia] Knobloch Westerwick said. “If your team wins, all that negative tension is suddenly converted to positive energy, which will put you in a euphoric state.”

In a sense this study (which seems to me far from rigorous) offers up a pretty unsurprising conclusion: ask any screenwriter about how to craft a gripping plotline, and they’ll tell you that the hero must find herself in the grip of a seemingly inextricable problem at the end of Act Two.

But this study’s results also serve as a reminder of a larger, and very important point: that the pursuit of unalloyed pleasure is a doomed undertaking. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: sports

The Science of Sports: Is There Such a Thing as a Clutch Performer?

In Slate today, writer Alan Siegal poses the burning question:  “Is Kobe Bryant really the best clutch player in the NBA?” That is to say, does Bryant possess that ineffable quality, so highly prized among athletes, of being able to respond to the highest degree of pressure by pulling out the stops and performing at an even higher level of performance than usual? Which, as Siegel acknowledges, raises a corollary question: does such a quality even exist? A growing consensus among sports statisticians is that the answer is no, as attempts to identify clutch players based on their average performance under certain high-stress conditions (the last shot of a game, say) have so far come to naught. Writes Siegal,

The topic of “clutch” is a contentious one in sports. In baseball, the debate over clutch hitting has raged for decades, with sabermetricians arguing there’s no evidence it’s an actual skill and wizened baseball men claiming they’ve seen it with their own two eyes. In basketball, a sport that’s been slower to embrace modern statistics, the fight over clutchness is in its relative infancy. Perhaps Kobe Bryant, then, will become the NBA’s Derek Jeter: a player whom the media and the fans perceive as clutch despite a lack of statistical evidence to prove the case.

The piece goes on to describe various attempts to identify various statistical grapplings with the data before coming to the conclusion that, no, Bryant is not a masterful performer in the clutch, if indeed anyone is. But as the saying goes, an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. So allow me to address the topic from a different perspective: is clutch performance biologically plausible? That is, could the human brain could be capable of responding to intense pressure by performing outstandingly? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: sports

Has BASE Jumping Gotten Boring For You?

I’m talking with Red Bulletin magazine about doing an interview next week with Travis Pastrana, the man who embodies the joyful abandonment of fear. It’s got me thinking about the mindset of people who reach the absolute outer limits of thrillseeking. And that line of thought leads inevitably to this:

How do you get the point where this is your form of recreation? I imagine you try skydiving, that gets boring, so you try BASE jumping, and that gets boring; you fly a wingsuit away from the mountain, that gets boring; so you try flying the wingsuit as close to the mountain as you can get. Where do you go from here? Well, one ideas is the project that daredevil wingsuiter Jeb Corliss is working on, trying to figure out how to land a wingsuit without using a parachute. He’s been at it for a few years yet and hasn’t cracked that nut yet, but that’s just as well, because I really can’t imagine what he’d do for an encore.

Filed under: sports, Thrills, video

What is Going On Inside Travis Pastrana’s Brain??

If only you could somehow run an fMRI scan on someone while they were doing a backflip on a Big Wheel…

Filed under: sports

5 Best Sports Fantasy Getaways

As I’ve written earlier, pushing your boundaries on vacation is a way to make your whole experience more memorable. I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to do that than by playing ball with one of your sports heroes — or by carving  turns, paddling a whitewater river, or surfing a wave with a legendary athlete. Here are five ways to make the magic happen:

  • Surfing. Hit the waves on Costa Rica’s legendary Tamarindo beach with famed shredder Robert “Wingnut” Weaver.
  • Baseball. Since 2005, the Baseball Hall of Fame has held a yearly fantasy camp each October in upstate New York where participants get to play baseball with former pros such as George Brett and Ozzie Smith.
  • Tennis. There are at least a dozen events around the world scattered throughout the year where guests can play tennis with their retired heroes and heroines.
  • Sailing. Every year at the end of October the Bitter End Yacht Club in the British Virgin Islands hosts a Pro Am Regatta, where amateur sailors get to take to the waves alongside some of the sport’s biggest names.
  • Dogsledding. Austin’s Alaskan Adventures runs seven-day trips during which you can mush your own dog team under the tutelage of Jerry Austin, an Iditarod Hall-of-Famer.
pushing your boundaries on vacation is a way to make your whole experience more memorable. I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to do that than by playing ball with one of your sports heroes

Filed under: sports

The Psychological Hazards of Speed Skating

Apolo Anton Ohno’s win in the 1000-meter short-track speed skating race on Saturday was all the more dramatic for the fact that he very nearly fell and lost it completely. “It feels amazing, especially in a sport as volatile as short track speed skating,” he said afterward.

Indeed, speed-skating is a sport notoriously vulnerable to catastrophe. The sudden and dramatic loss of ability, known as choking, haunts every sport. Golfers dread “the yips,” the abrupt inability to sink even the easiest putt. Archers are haunted by “target panic.” But no one is as vulnerable as speed skaters. With a handful of events left to go, there’s still plenty of opportunities for skaters to suffer wrenching denouements. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: sports

Delicious Agony: The Neuroscience of Watching Johnny Weir

Last week’s luge tragedy highlighted the treachery of snow and ice for athletes at Winter Olympics: no performance on a frozen surface is ever more than a few milliseconds or a fraction of an inch away from catastrophe. But as they say in software, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. The ever-present potential for disaster is the essence of the games’ entertainment value.

No one understands this better than figure-skating star Johnny Weir. Since he stormed into the sport’s top ranks by winning the 2004 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the flamboyant performer has dazzled fans with a recklessness that reliably delivers either transcendence or catastrophe. “The most important thing,” Weir has said, “is to not be afraid to fall.” That do-or-die attitude has paid off with the fans and media. Few other athletes can boast the kind of celebrity that Weir has achieved, even before the Sundance Channel debuted its eight-part documentary miniseries about him in January.

And it’s no wonder: neuroscience suggests that circuits within our limbic system — the ancient region deep within our brain that governs emotions — are primed to respond to this kind of volatility. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: sports

Did Fear Contribute to Olympic Luger’s Death?

News today via ESPN’s website today that Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died on the track at the Vancouver Olympics, had concerns about the course and voiced them to his father the day before his fatal accident:

The athlete killed on the luge track Friday told his father a day before he died in a training run that he was “scared of one of the turns,” David Kumaritashvili told The Wall Street Journal.

The fact that Kumaritashvili was dreading the very run that killed him adds a poignant touch to an already tragic story, but it also suggests an insight into his death. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: sports

Death on a Sled

Horrifying news this weekend from Vermont, where two adults and a three-year-old girl died when snowmobiles they were riding on broke through the ice on a frozen lake. From the AP report:

The snowmobiles were carrying six people on Lake Dunmore when the accident occurred about 100 yards from shore at about noon Saturday. Five people went into the water and were later pulled out by rescue crews. A 4-year-old was pushed to safety before the snowmobile he was riding went through the ice. Kevin Flynn, 50, Carrie Flynn, 24, both of Whiting, and 3-year-old Bryanna Popp, of Brandon, were pronounced dead at Porter Hospital in nearby Middlebury.

The article notes that three other adults have died in Vermont in snowmobile accidents within the span of the last month. While that string of fatalities might be down to a statistical anomaly, or just bad luck, there’s no denying that snowmobilers face an outsized risk of fatality.  Last winter in Michigan, for instance, 1 out of every 10,000 registered snowmobilers had a fatal accident. That’s a rate 25 times higher than for skiing and snowboarding. To put it another way, as I pointed out in an article about avalanches in Popular Mechanics, snowmobilers make up more than half of all avalanche deaths. So is it the machines that are dangerous, or the people who ride them? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: sports

Interviews with the Author

Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

Also by Jeff Wise