Jan
12

Stress: The other performance enhancer

By

One thing that’s been programmed into the world of sports is the idea of “clutch,” that some players perform better under pressure than others. It exists, absolutely, but whether or not it’s impact is properly weighed is another topic for another time. There is no better example of an athlete handling stress and anxiety than Mariano Rivera, who always appears in control and never seems to change his demeanor. When you watch him, you’re unable to tell if it’s a one run playoff game or the third inning of a meaningless Spring Training game.

In a guest post at THT, Dr. Rob Dobrenksi – a licensed Psychologist in NYC and Shrink Talk author – wrote about anxiety and the different ways it can affect a player’s performance. The basic idea is that anxiety is actually beneficial to a player’s performance because the adrenaline rush gives them “an edge,” as he calls it. However, every player has a point where too much anxiety is detrimental to their performance. Think of the anxiety-performance relationship as a upside-down U-shaped curve, like the one in the graph from the THT article to the left. For some players, like Mo, the peak of their U-curve is way to the right. For others, it’s closer to the left.

Dr. Dobrenski mentions that there are three main components of anxiety, one of which is the inner monologue we all engage in. “If I don’t drive in this run, I’ll be the goat and probably be on the bench tomorrow” is an example. People and athletes are taught to “monitor and challenge” their inner monologue, which admittedly is easier said than done. Instead of worrying about being the goat, they’re taught to think “I can do this, and if I don’t, it won’t be the end of the world,” especially when it comes to something we’ve done countless times before, like Chuck Knoblauch throwing the ball to first.

Alex Rodriguez is perhaps the biggest poster boy for failing under pressure. That is, until this past October of course. Perhaps the peak of his U-curve was well on the left of the graph until he dealt with his PED demons and took some of the weight off his shoulders, shifting his U-curve to the right. I’m no doctor, athough I do play one on a blog, and I’m willing to bet your ability to deal with stress is greatly affected by a whatever else is going on in your life. In fact, I know it is.

The bottom line is that stress and anxiety are completely normal human emotions. We’ve all been stressed out at work, and it certainly effects how we perform, one way or the other. Baseball players are no different, it’s just that their performance under stress is subject to far more public scrutiny. Some anxiety is good for performance, but too much is a problem, no matter who you are.

Categories : Musings

59 Comments»

  1. Bob Stone says:

    I am sure that stress is a huge factor in althletic performance. Plus when you think about the Greenie period in baseball, which adds to stress, it becomes a crazy chemical balancing act to hit one’s peak.

    Greenies keep you alert but too much and you move the stress peak on the curve to the left.

  2. hink of the anxiety-performance relationship as a upside-down U-shaped curve, like the one in the graph from the THT article to the left. For some players, like Mo, the peak of their U-curve is way to the right. For others, it’s closer to the left.

    I believe the more commonly accepted name is “bell curve”, not “U-curve”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normal_distribution

    • Bob Stone says:

      Maybe it’s U-Curve for “Uncertain what to call this graph” because I failed basic statistics in school.

    • Mike Axisa says:

      A bell curve refers to a series of data, like say the average ERA of all ML pitchers. A few guys would be at the extremes, but most in the middle. This graph is for an individual and shows how they’d perform at a given amount of anxiety.

      I don’t know what the hell to call it either, but it’s not a bell curve in the mathematical sense of the term, even though it looks like a bell.

      • Bob Stone says:

        I understand your uncertainty in terms of classic normal distribution curves but I think Bell Curve still fits.

        It’s still a bell curve because we are talking about a series of data points on the Y-Axis (performance) spread over a range of a certain variable on the X-Axis (stress level).

      • Thomas says:

        I’d say it is essentially just a parabola that can fall within a certain range depending on the player. You are right it is not a bell curve, since it is not a distribution of players performance with respect to their anxiety, but instead is function of a performance vs. anxiety.

      • Fair enough, I guess there’s not really a probabalistic density to the curve.

        If it’s not a classical bell curve though (and the more I think about it, you’re right, it isn’t), it may not necessarily be an upside-down U. Or, more to the point, saying that the peak of some player’s U-curve would be further to the left or right isn’t quite accurate either.

        The difference between Mo and, say, Brad Lidge isn’t that Mo’s U-curve “peaks” further to the right, it’s that Lidge’s U-curve is very narrow and tall (and thus, falls off from its peak close to the zero) while Mo’s U-curve is very wide and flat. Mo’s upside-down U is more like an upside-down open box with square corners (and thus, falls off from its peak much further to the right).

        Remember, you’re moving rightward from zero, measuring how increasing anxiety affects performance. Moving rightward, Lidge and Mo both reach their peaks probably at the same anxiety point, but Lidge doesn’t remain there long before begins declining. Mo stays up there damn near forever. He may not really have a peak; more of a plateau.

        • Bob Stone says:

          Good explanation. It explains the rationale for why it is not a Bell Curve much more clearly for those of us that are not statistics experts.

      • Rose says:

        Isn’t the technical term of a “curve” in school when the teacher grades her papers actually a “bell curve”?

      • Januz says:

        Bell Curves deal with population means. A simplified version works like this: 70% of the population are in the Middle. 12.5% trend left, 12.5% trend right, for a total of 25%. 2.5% are on each “Tail” or outside the population mainstream, for a total of 5%.
        If you look at that elite 5%, and break that down, into a smaller bell curve, you will find many of the famous, and infamous that society has to offer. For example lets use baseball : If you agree that around 700 Major Leaguers are outside the population mean of $308m (US Population According to the Census Bureau), because of their skill level and income, then you can also agree, that out of that 700, you will find around 35 players, that make up that 5% that put them outside the MLB Population Mean. Some of those players are the guys that will be Hall Of Famers, or will receiving votes in more than one election. Of course, this is a dynamic and ever changing number.
        The concept behind this is very interesting, and quite controversial depending upon its applications in and towards society in general.

  3. Rose says:

    Would you consider somebody taking Adderall (for ADD or ADHD) to be “cheating” or using “PED’s”?

    • Thomas says:

      It matters if they have ADD or ADHD. If the have the disorder, then it isn’t cheating. If they don’t have the disorder, it is cheating. Just like if a baseball player was an asthmatic and got an oral steroid with a legitimate and then have it approved by the MLB, he is not a cheater.

      • Steve H says:

        I woudln’t consider it cheating, though I would consider it performance enhancing. Of course coffee and gatorade can be considered performance enhancing too.

        • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi says:

          Why is that not cheating? A player who takes a controlled substance illegally and without MLB authorization is cheating, I don’t see the distinction.

          • Steve H says:

            Sorry, I meant with approval from MLB for a “legit” medical condition I wouldn’t consider it illegal but even with a legit reason, it’s still performance enhancing. At it’s interesting that MLB baseball players now have ADD at 10x the national average (made up but it’s something like that since greenies were banned)

            • Ed says:

              I do remember hearing that players have ADD at a much higher rate than the average, but, it’s also worth noting that MLB players have regular medical checkups from private doctors as part of their job. They also have medical insurance plans that cost over $100k/year.

              With that level of medical care, I’d expect all sorts of medical conditions to occur at much higher rates than the general population.

              I’m not trying to say that your point isn’t valid, just that it may not be as severe as it would appear at first.

        • As can video analysis and isometric-computer-aided weight training and any number of other modern innovations to make modern baseball players better and smarter athletes than their peers.

          What if Ty Cobb could have detailed, hi-res, frame-by-frame video breakdown of all opposing pitchers? Who knows, maybe he hits .500 every year.

          • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi says:

            Because video analysis and isometric-computer-aided weight training aren’t against the law. There’s a pretty clear distinction here. I mean, yes, of course working out and eating healthy could be called “performance enhancers,” too, but that’s totally using word-play to circumvent the obvious point. There’s a major distinction between those things and doing something illegal to gain an edge. Not just against the rules or anything like that… Illegal.

            It may seem somewhat arbitrary to some people, but that’s just the way the world works. We live in a society that has decided, for the good of the whole, to regulate pharmaceuticals and other substances we consider to be safe only when administered under the care of a physician, and only when necessary. Steroids and other PEDs banned by MLB and other sports are drugs that we, as a society, have deemed fall under that categorization. Using those substances illegally, and against the rules of MLB, is cheating, and is clearly different than watching video or working out without the use of controlled substances.

            • Rose says:

              Agreed on all parts…

              Although Adderall is thrown around like wildfire because it can be…while steroids can’t. Pharmacists make WAY more money splashing Adderall here and there than they do steroids. You can’t get steroids telling your doctor you have sore arm. You CAN get Adderall telling your doctor, quite simply, I can’t concentrate.

              Not that this means anything…it’s just that one is frowned upon WAY more than the other…while Adderall may be a good enhancer as well…I’ve taken it for exams and stuff and it’s basically cheating for the exam…haha

            • I wasn’t calling them cheating.

              Steve H said “I wouldn’t consider Thing X cheating, but it is performance enhancing. As are Thing Y and Thing Z”.

              We were both talking merely about performance enhancement. The point being made is that while some things are illegal and some are not, the philosophical underpinning of why taking steroids is “cheating” is not that taking steroids are illegal, but that they’re performance enhancing. That’s a slippery slope.

              • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi says:

                “The point being made is that while some things are illegal and some are not, the philosophical underpinning of why taking steroids is ‘cheating’ is not that taking steroids are illegal, but that they’re performance enhancing. That’s a slippery slope.”

                I disagree. You can literally call anything “performance enhancing,” but being performance enhancers isn’t what makes steroids and other PEDs substance we ban from sports. What makes them substances we ban from sports is that they are illegal performance enhancers. That’s the philosophical underpinning – that we, as a society, have decided that we are better off if we regulate the use of certain substances, per my comment above, and that the substances banned in sports leagues fall under that categorization. We don’t ban steroids from sports because they enhance performance, we ban them from sports because we, as a society, have decided their use must be regulated and administered, when necessary (due to the dangers involved), by qualified medical professionals.

                Watching video, working out, drinking coffee, drinking Steven Seagal’s Lightning Bolt Energy Drink… All those things enhance performance, on some level. So does putting in time in the batting cage. The distinction, and the reason why some things are banned or not banned, is whether or not they are controlled substances that are used in violation of law and/or MLB rules.

                “Steve H said ‘I wouldn’t consider Thing X cheating, but it is performance enhancing. As are Thing Y and Thing Z.’”

                Steve H was saying he doesn’t consider taking Adderall, without a prescription, to be cheating. He’s wrong, it is. It’s illegal and it’s banned by MLB, so using it, without a prescription and MLB authorization, is cheating.

                • On the first point, why is shit that J.C. Romero and Sergio Mitre bought from their local GNC a banned PED, then?

                  On the second point, you’re still not hearing what I’m saying. Somebody said “Is this thing cheating?” Steve said “No, but it’s performance enhancing.” I said “So are these other things.”

                  Whether or not the first thing is cheating or not is not what I was responding to. I was only listing other things that were performance enhancing (and not cheating).

                • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi says:

                  I answered your first point below.

                  On the second point… I think I’m hearing what you’re saying loud and clear. I think what Steve H said was wrong. Then, when you listed other things that are performance enhancing but not illegal, I responded by explaining what I believe to be the distinction between those performance enhancing but permitted actions and the prohibited performance enhancing actions.

                  I have to run so I won’t be able to respond further until later, sorry.

            • Furthermore, the illegality of a substance is not what makes it a banned PED.

              Sergio Mitre and J.C. Romero can attest to that. Unless my memory fails me, they were suspended for legal to buy, own, and consume over-the-counter substances that were not controlled, regulated, or scheduled and did not need a doctor’s permission.

              It’s not the legality of the substance that makes it “cheating” in the eyes of the league, it’s the supposed performance enhancing benefits. People who took legal PEDs are treated the same way as people who took illegal PEDs.

              • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi says:

                I disagree on this point. While some banned substances may not be illegal, the vast majority are. It’s my understanding that many of the legal but banned substances are substances that are commonly used either in conjunction with steroids or to mask their use. And if there are any substances remaining after those two groups that are neither illegal or have some sort of other connection to the use of illegal PEDs, I would assume our sports leagues and PED regulating bodies, have decided that use of those substances is possibly harmful to the health of the user and sets a bad example for society (which are the same reasons why we make the use of legally controlled substances illegal without medical need and supervision).

                I wholeheartedly disagree with the premise that we ban substances solely because they enhance performance. I believe we ban substances because of the health effects on the users and the example such use sets for the rest of society.

              • Ed says:

                Sergio Mitre and J.C. Romero can attest to that. Unless my memory fails me, they were suspended for legal to buy, own, and consume over-the-counter substances that were not controlled, regulated, or scheduled and did not need a doctor’s permission.

                Kinda. I don’t remember their cases specifically, but there are two categories of cases for players who got suspended for GNC drugs.

                The first is players who were suspended for using GNC products that were contaminated with things that shouldn’t have been in them. The supplement companies screwed up, and ingredients from different product lines contaminated the products they bought. The manufacturers cut costs during production, and those players suffered.

                The other category is things that are legal are marked ingredients in the product, but are banned in the drug testing agreement. The FDA’s controlled substances lists are rather specific. Supplement manufacturers looking to make their products stand out often look for ways to include ingredients that are legal but will be processed by your body similar to the banned substances.

                Androgen is a good example of this. For all intents and purposes, it’s a steroid. It has a slightly different chemical structure than the usual steroids, but it gets processed the same way. Until a few years ago, it was different enough from steroids to be legal. Eventually research and the law caught up and got it legally classified as a steroid and banned it.

                Baseball’s drug testing agreement is a little ahead of the FDA, and bans a bunch of things that will probably get banned by the FDA in the near future. It’s also likely that they were a little over aggressive and banned things that really aren’t a problem, but they had some reason to believe might be.

          • Rose says:

            What if Ty Cobb could have detailed, hi-res, frame-by-frame video breakdown of all opposing pitchers? Who knows, maybe he hits .500 every year.

            But I think the real question is…if he has this equipment…how many less people would have been stabbed…

            • Jack says:

              He would have stabbed more after finding a hitch in his stabbing motion that slowed him down, allowing some of his potential victims to get away unharmed.

          • Bob Stone says:

            The pitchers he faced would all have access to video and other technology. It evens out. It’s like Spy vs. Spy cartoons.

        • Thomas says:

          I believe a Yankee prospect got suspended for using Adderall or a similar drug, a few years ago. He actually had ADD or ADHD, but forgot to send in his paperwork (possibly a result of his disorder?). Thus, he tested positive for the substance and was suspended.

          At least certain medications for ADD/ADHD are banned substances by the MLB.

  4. Salty Buggah says:

    Alex Rodriguez is perhaps the biggest poster boy for failing under pressure. That is, until this past October of course.

    I think his “resurgence” (I say that because he had higher OPS and “Clutch” than Jeter in the postseason anyway) is both a mental and luck thing. I mean, he’s a great player so a correction was way overdue.

    • Rose says:

      I think there is some circumstance that comes into play as well. Arod had a VERY good batting line in the post season before he joined the Yankees…AND up until Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS as well. I think after that point the pressure mounted for everybody in that game (as well as Boston being a better team) and they lost. The following years of post season play may have been coincidence (everybody on the team stunk in the PS during these times for the most part) as well as the media creating this pressure conductor that everything was all on Arod’s shoulders. This perhaps enhanced the circumstances a bit…quite a bit in some cases, arguably…but the talent was always there…and there was always a time where he DID come through in the clutch and perform well in the post season. Ironically, the media talking about how Arod couldn’t hack the pressure, was actually creating more pressure on him than there ever was before.

    • Steve H says:

      Yeah, if you look at his career playoff line vs. regular season line, they are almost identical now that he’s starting to pile up more at bats, pulling him away from the dreaded SSS. Just like Jeter, A-Rod hits almost identical in the postseason as he does in the regular season, he just needed enough ab’s to get there.

  5. Short Porch says:

    Under Pressure Lyrics
    Artist(Band):Queen
    Review The Song (125) Print the Lyrics

    Send “Under Pressure” Ringtones to Cell

    Mm ba ba de
    Um bum ba de
    Um bu bu bum da de
    Pressure pushing down on me
    Pressing down on you no man ask for
    Under pressure – that burns a building down
    Splits a family in two
    Puts people on streets
    Um ba ba be
    Um ba ba be
    De day da
    Ee day da – that’s o.k.
    It’s the terror of knowing
    What this world is about
    Watching some good friends
    Screaming ‘Let me out’
    Pray tomorrow – gets me higher
    Pressure on people – people on streets
    Day day de mm hm
    Da da da ba ba
    O.k.
    Chippin’ around – kick my brains around the floor
    These are the days it never rains but it pours
    Ee do ba be
    Ee da ba ba ba
    Um bo bo
    Be lap
    People on streets – ee da de da de
    People on streets – ee da de da de da de da
    It’s the terror of knowing
    What this world is about
    Watching some good friends
    Screaming ‘Let me out’
    Pray tomorrow – gets me higher high high
    Pressure on people – people on streets
    Turned away from it all like a blind man
    Sat on a fence but it don’t work
    Keep coming up with love
    but it’s so slashed and torn
    Why – why – why ?
    Love love love love love
    Insanity laughs under pressure we’re cracking
    Can’t we give ourselves one more chance
    Why can’t we give love that one more chance
    Why can’t we give love give love give love give love
    give love give love give love give love give love
    ‘Cause love’s such an old fashioned word
    And love dares you to care for
    The people on the edge of the night
    And love dares you to change our way of
    Caring about ourselves
    This is our last dance
    This is our last dance
    This is ourselves
    Under pressure
    Under pressure
    Pressure

  6. CountryClub says:

    The good to great players that perform at the same level as they do in the regular season, are the ones that are clutch. Clutch isn’t raising your game (anybody can get lucky or unlucky in one series or game or at bat), it’s keeping your game right where it’s always been.

    Mike mentioning Mo is a good example. So are Jeter and Pettitte. If you look at their career regular season stats and then look at their career minor league stats, they’re extremely close.

    The players that get too amped up and try too hard (as this post indicates) generally tend to do worse.

    Steady Eddie wins the race.

  7. gregori says:

    anyone that plays golf knows that with a little more on the line you may grip that club a little tighter and deviate from your usual preshot routine.
    same with baseball.
    unfortunately the Saber statistic people deny this as it cannot be measured.
    they all say that over a period of time with a greater sample size players perform close to their usual average during all situations, clutch or otherwise.
    the truth is however that some players, in golf or baseball or whatever, either do not let pressure situations affect them or they actually perform better.
    those are the players you want on your team but you better not depend on Sabermetrics to get them there.

  8. Hughesus Cristo says:

    I have always assumed that while the idea of “clutchness” is dubious, the idea of “choking” is absolutely real. I would also wonder whether your adrenal response really varies that much, or if it’s just on “on or off” kind of thing. Any increased or extended response would then be negative, no?

    • Steve H says:

      I think if you give any major league regular 500 playoff AB’s, his line will look pretty damn close to his career, but very few players ever get that many ab’s in the playoffs. If you look at Jeter and A-Rod’s careers, Jeter absolutely does not improve during the playoffs, and A-Rod does not regress. They, with enough ab’s, are just about that their career regular season lines. In the playoffs a 4 game slump can lead to someone being labeled a choker, when it’s simply not the case, as every player goes thru slumps.

      • Januz says:

        Believe it or not, there are plenty of examples of players under or over performing in key situations. I think of Ben Roethlisberger running a two-minute offense, where he is usually finds a way to win games for the Steelers, which is a reason he is considered an “Elite” QB. Conversely, he has only been chosen to 2 Pro-Bowls (Not an elite number). “Big Ben’s” Championships (Although he stunk in his First Super Bowl), total wins, and comebacks is what will make him a likely Hall Of Famer, not the total body of work (Like you see with say, Dan Marino).

  9. pete says:

    this thread has gotten way, way, way too smart for me.

  10. JFH says:

    this is the same concept that was written about in the late 80′s early 90′s, for the business world in a book called “danger in the comfort zone”. the idea is that comfort (laziness) or fear (paralysis) on either end of of the graph = low productivity. if you are neither too comfortable nor in too much fear, you are in the most productive zone. the owner of the company i worked for made all of us read the book. he was a pretty successful guy. he went on to buy the baltimore ravens.

  11. Ross says:

    This is one of the most thought-evoking posts in RAB history. Well done.

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