The Psychology of Choking: What Keeps Peyton Manning From Success in the “Clutch?”

Peyton Manning mural

Courtesy of @gammagallery

By David Hauser

Regardless of how he performs this Sunday in Super Bowl XLVIII, Peyton Manning will go down as one of the five greatest football players ever.  Manning’s excellence in execution has made him one of the greatest sportsmen of his generation (regards to Brett Hart).  It is his gaudy regular season statistics, his un-guardable ability to be both quarterback and on-field offensive coordinator at the same time (OMAHA!), and his scholarly approach to the game—being so detailed in his preparation and execution that even his two-time Super Bowl-winning MVP little brother still sits in his shadow.

But in football, as in life, every pro still has a con.  For Manning, as much as his regular season masterful execution has become his calling card, the quality that leaves NFL talking heads drooling all over themselves is his occasional (dare I say, consistent) track record of tightening up in the biggest games—his Achilles’ heel as he writes the final few chapters of his storied career.

Manning has two decades of performance data on the national stage, dating back to his four years in creamsicle orange at the University of Tennessee.  His quantitative numbers (win/loss %, personal statistics) have always been so outrageously excellent that he is hard to quantify or make sense of, as he literally has no historical peers or comps.  He remains the greatest SEC Quarterback ever and perhaps the greatest statistical professional quarterback in history (with all due respect to Warren Moon’s Canadian Football catalog).

However, the underlying qualitative story and narrative of the Manning career dating back to his college days is as “the guy who couldn’t win the big game.”  In college, the rap was “he can’t beat Florida” (the alpha dog of the SEC in the mid- to late 90s).  Perplexing as it is looking back, Manning’s UT Volunteers went undefeated and won the National Championship only after Peyton left Knoxville for the NFL (all it took was Tee Martin (who?) replacing Peyton at the helm to finally beat Florida … and everyone else who stood in the Volunteers way the year after Peyton left).  As a Colt, Peyton led his team to the playoffs virtually every season after taking over leadership of the team as a rookie for the previously fledgling franchise.  He created legends out of his cadre of offensive skill players – Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Edgerrin James.  But this legendary offense always seemed to find themselves falling a little too short when January came around.

Some might suggest this tightening/choke narrative changed for Peyton in 2006 when he finally conquered his vaunted rival Patriots in a superb comeback win in the AFC Championship.  This followed by the great re-branding of Peyton as “Super Bowl Champion” a couple weeks later when his Colts defeated the Chicago Bears in SB XLI.  But if you investigate beneath the final result, this was one of the sloppiest, most poorly executed Super Bowls in the last decade.  The true hero was Colts rookie defensive back, Kelvin Hayden, who forced the game’s critical interception, returning it for a touchdown, the turning point of an otherwise sluggish and rain-filled Super Bowl.

At 37 years old, Manning just completed the best statistical regular season of any quarterback, of any age, the NFL has ever seen.  That is not supposed to happen.  Yet in his 20 years as a major American athlete, he has only the one game we can look back on and definitely say, “Yeah, that Peyton Manning, he’s clutch” (his 18 point comeback in the 2006 AFC Championship).  This is not insignificant.  For in America, the field is the arena for which we crown our greatest warriors.  And the natural adjectives of a true warrior: stoic, unfailingly courageous, unflappable remain beyond the descriptors that will be used to describe the Peyton Manning legacy.  Unless …

Cue the spotlight: New York City.  Super Bowl XLVIII.  The world’s most important city, in the most culturally consumed American event of the year (a day that quite frankly, “the powers that be” are remiss in not offering up the subsequent Monday as an “observance holiday” … for recovery, you know).  A historically great defense standing in the way of hishistorically great offense, or as Nate Silver pointed out earlier this week on the Colbert Report, this is only the eighth Super Bowl ever that has actually pitted the two best teams of that season against each other.

The stage is set, but is Peyton Manning destined to choke once more, or in this great battle of New York (East Rutherford, NJ), will he finally be able to shift his narrative into the clutch?

The psychological research suggests that there are two major obstacles in Manning’s way….read on here

One thought on “The Psychology of Choking: What Keeps Peyton Manning From Success in the “Clutch?”

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