Many athletes report that high stress vaults them into a brief twilight zone where everything seems to happen in slow motion and they seem to have more time to react (a condition called tachypsychia, discussed in the next chapter). For instance, Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller described it this way: Irose above the floor, and it was like I had a camera, filming the game no, actually I felt like a movie director, telling everybody what to do from above. Everybody was in slow motion. This is the state of mind that amateur athletes dream about but many never attain: that magic period of time where complete control is attained or at least you feel as if it is attained, which can mean the same thing when it comes to performance.
When it is well understood, practiced, and used wisely (and sometimes luckily!), a high level of arousal can be the difference between success and failure or normal performance and optimal performance. However, accompanying the significant potential benefits of arousal are several possible drawbacks that athletes at all levels try to avoid.
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Drawbacks of Arousal
Perhaps the most common drawback of overarousal is choking, a term derived from the Creek, meaning a narrowing of the esophagus. When an athlete reacts with too much stress, the esophagus can constrict, the body can get flooded with adrenaline, and any number of bad things can happen. Choking can occur in any type of sport at any time. In the Atlanta Olympics, Canadian shot putter Brad Snyder threw far below his personal best, explaining, It was like someone had their hands around my neck. I couldn’t breathe. But there may be more chances of it happening in finesse events, says psychology professor Roy Baumeister. There are two main ingredients to most athletic performances: skill and effort, he said. Pressure seems to impair skill but improve effort. He believes that in highly skilled events, such as diving, gymnastics, and golf, competitors are most affected by sudden bouts of self-consciousness, but in sports involving sheer effort and determination, such as running and weightlifting, self-consciousness is less likely to result in choking.
Drawbacks of Arousal
1. Too much power and speed, resulting in overkill
2. Muscles can seize up or motor skills break down
3. Concentration distracted
4. Concentration too narrow, leading to tunnel vision and other distorTions
5. Errors in judgment
Scott Norwood, who missed perhaps the most famous field-goal try in NFL history, a 47-yarder as his Buffalo Bills lost to the New York Giants in the 1991 Super Bowl, said he got too pumped prior to the kick. I was so pumped up for the kick that my plant leg went about three or four inches ahead of where it should have been, and I ended up pushing the kick, he said. There was plenty of distance, but it drifted four feet wide to the right.
Nowhere is the seizure of life and limb more obvious than on the golf course, where amateurs and pros alike can blow easy shots. Seasoned pros like Greg Norman, who keeps coming up short in major events, and Tiger Woods, Loren Roberts, and Curtis Strange, who have struggled in the Ryder Cup, attest to the fact that even the most experienced athletes are not exempt from tightening up.
In baseball, a study of World Series games between 1924 and 1982 revealed that when seventh games were necessary, the home teams won only 40.8 percent of the time, compared to 59.2 percent for the visitors, thanks at least in part to more errors by the home teams. One of the study’s researchers, Roy Baumeister, believes the home teams felt more pressure to win in front of their fans and were more selfconscious. (Of course, entire teams choking may be more complicated than individual athletes.)
There are other potential drawbacks to high emotions, to be examined later in this blog, such as athletes getting so psyched that they cheat or become violent, and so accustomed to a heavy hormonal flow that they eventually become addicted to the highs that it brings.
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