Athlete Workouts

Life in the Pressure Cooker

Any added pressure on an athlete can result in a better or poorer performance, Teitelbaum added. The best ones make the pressure work for them, but many others get close to the brass ring and self-destruct.

Just ask U.S. decathlete Dan O’Brien. In 1992, O’Brien seemed a lock to make the U.S. Olympic team. He was the reigning world champion in the grueling 2-day, 10-event test of speed, power and endurance which produces the world’s greatest athlete, and, in fact, was the favorite to win the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics. Some track observers called him the next Jim Thorpe and Reebok TV commercials made him somewhat of a household name in America.

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But in the U.S. trials, O’Brien’s timing was thrown off by an unusual pit setup in the pole vault competition and in his first two jumps, he didn’t clear the bar at a relatively easy 15 feet, nine inches. He needed to clear that height on his third jump in order to stay alive in the overall decathlon, but when he thought about what would happen if he missed, O’Brien started to panic. He recalled: I thought,I’m down to my last jump. My whole decathlon is on the line. I thought about the commercials, and I told myself,Oh, God. I do not want to look bad. I ran over to my coaches in a panic and said,What do I do? What do I do?

O’Brien tried to calm his emotions, but he couldn’t shake his anxiety. On his third and final jump, he failed to clear the bar again and did not make the Olympic team. Then the muscle-bound man broke down and cried. There had been such high expectations from everybody. I felt as if I’d let the whole world down.

Even athletes who succeed most of the time under pressure have choked in their careers. In the 1936 World Series, Lou Gehrig froze at third base and didn’t score on a single by a teammate. Ted Williams hit just .250 in his only World Series, and Barry Bonds, one of the best players of his era with a lifetime .288 average going into 1998, was just 16 of 80 (.200) in the playoffs. In golf, choking is called the yips and they are what keep many talented players from getting onto the tour, according to Canadian veteran Gary Cowan, who repeatedly failed to qualify for the U.S. PGA senior tour because my nerves just kept getting the better of me. Golfers are compassionate to their opponentschoking because they know they are susceptible to becoming a victim themselves.

Boxer Evander Holyfield said that athletes often choke because (unlike Michael Jordan, Nancy Lopez, and John McEnroe) they can’t control their emotions. Once you get angry, your body starts doing things you do not want it to do, he said.

Overcoming choking is a psychological skill learned in practice during pressure-packed performances, according to Bob Weinberg, former president of the Association of Applied Sport Psychology and North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity. (Tennis star) Ivan Lendl was prone to choking early in his career until he finally bested John McEnroe in the 1985 U.S. Open, Weinberg said. After that, he became tough to beat under pressure [after losing in the finals from 1982-84, Lendl won three straight Opens]. Some athletes seem more gifted under pressure than others, but it is something that can be developed.

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