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.  First is what University of Chicago psychologist, Sian Beilock, describes as the “Curse of Expertise.”  Dr. Beilock, who presents this cutting edge research in her 2011 volume Choke (along with an upcoming Chicago area FAN Event speaking engagement Feb. 18, free to the public), suggests our mind’s process for performing athletic/sports mechanical motion explains part of the story of why people “choke.”  What is sometimes colloquially referred to as “muscle memory” in conversations about athletics, actually consists of different memory processes within the brain: explicit memory, procedural memory, and the use of working memory.

Explicit memory is a description of recall of certain information, or the ability to remember phone numbers or where you left your car in the endless maze of a mall parking garage.  Procedural memory, however, is the way the mind and body work to construct and remember a golf swing or how to operate a cell phone, or more apt to this discussion: how one accurately throws a football.  Paradoxically, Beilock’s Human Performance Laboratory has shown that individuals with greater expertise and more experience have a tendency to be more prone to tighten up in their execution of mechanized, seemingly route procedural tasks in pressurized situations.  Beilock says, “pressure causes a performance hiccup based on what we are doing and the type of memory that is driving how we execute that particular skill.”  She goes on to state that “higher working memory individuals” perform the best in practice situations, however under pressure, a majority of high-powered individuals panic and resort to “cognitive short cuts” that the “lower powered individuals” normally use (and thus are more familiar with).

Essentially, throwing a football is an unconscious mechanically executed action, especially for someone like Peyton Manning who has thrown a football over 750,000 times in his life.  This unconscious action draws on working memory and procedural memory in the brain to repeatedly perform the same action.  Those who practice the most, theoretically make perfect or “expert.”  And what is unique about Manning is that one of his greatest strengths, as discussed above, is that he is an “expert among experts” with his throwing motion—no other NFL QB is praised more for the execution of mechanics in the NFL (perhaps Andrew Luck is joining this conversation, but he probably has “only a paltry” 200,000 throws in his young life).

Manning simply has a flawless delivery.  Conversely, quarterbacks like his opponent Sunday, Russell Wilson or the 49ers Colin Kaepernick or even little brother Eli, have all been knocked for their inconsistent mechanics at times, but have also all overcome such blemishes with their remarkable abilities to improvise on the fly; a playground-like ability to run and evade pursing defenders while throwing to receivers down field.

Peyton Manning runs as though he is wearing concrete shoes (your Sopranos New Jersey Super Bowl joke/reference of the week!).  Whereas Colin Kaepernick in the tightest of games in the NFC Championship last week improvised and made this touchdown throw, seemingly defying all laws of human mechanics and likely re-writing a few Kinesiology textbooks in the process.  Or looking at the most clutch play of the 2013 season, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers on 4th and 8 with a minute and change on the clock in the final regular season game of the year–in which if he failed on this one final play his team would not make the playoffs and the game would be over (not to mention the archrival Bears would make the playoffs)–with a defender rushing down his face he managed to scramble out of harms way for one split second, evading the defender, and on the run made this impossibly clutch 48 yard TD pass to win the game.

And that is precisely one puzzle piece in the mystery of choking.  Scrambling, improvising, evading, and throwing on the run actually frees the brain up from thinking too much.  When these guys are on the move, their expertise is no longer a “curse,” because they are improvising their mechanics on the fly, not trying to consciously tell their arm and body to execute exactly what they practiced.

Malcolm Gladwell described the curse of expertise as too much carefulness and second-guessing in pressure situations.  The instinct of the well-seasoned, ardently practiced, veteran executor in a pressure filled moment is to, “to work harder, to buckle down, to take the [task] of their ability more seriously.”  And paradoxically, this often makes their mechanics tighter and their corresponding performance worse.  It is simply too much thinking about an unconscious muscle memory action.  Whereas the secret to the success in the clutch for Rodgers or Kaepernick is they “just do it,” and their running/improvising allows their conscious brain to stay out of the way.

Gladwell goes on to tell another slice of the story of choking, which once again for Peyton Manning is a threat he is quite exposed to.  This is what Stanford psychologist, Claude Steele, refers to as the “stereotype threat.”  Steele and his colleagues suggest that the stereotype threat can interrupt successful performance in pressure situations for “any group that has historically been depicted in negative ways.”  This body of research has shown literally that white men perform well and fine on laboratory jumping and athletic tasks, that is until they are given a cue in sync with the stereotype that “white men can’t jump.”  When this stereotype is made known to the white male research participants conscious minds, they perform significantly worse on jumping tasks and athletic tasks.  One of Steele’s protégés, Julio Garcia, suggests “the usual prescription for failure [for these participants] is to work harder and take the test more seriously” when they are made known of there group’s stereotype, in essence choking because of the awareness of this stereotype.

In the drone of 24-hour sports analysis, there is perhaps no greater stereotyped group than “the Hall of Famers who never won it all.”  Decades later, sports pundits Charles Barkley and Dan Marino still receive scorn for their respective empty trophy cases.  And while Peyton Manning no longer fits neatly within this stereotype with his 2006 Vince Lombardi trophy, there is no question he is not too far from this conversation either.

Since Manning’s one Super Bowl win, he has a losing record in the post-season.  Last year, despite having likely the most talented team in the playoffs, his Broncos gave away their home divisional playoff matchup to the Baltimore Ravens, in one of the most epic playoff choke jobs ever.  This season, Manning’s Broncos have been fortunate in the playoffs to be in the weak AFC, only needing to survive and advance against quite inferior opponents neither of which pushed Manning into many late game pressure filled moments that required him to slay his one weakness.  That will likely change this Sunday when Manning squares off against the most vaunted defense in the NFL, the Seattle Seahawks.

Quite frankly, this Seattle defense fraught with talent, has done themselves no favors in the lead up to the big game.  Foolishly, Seattle defensive back, Richard Sherman, has absorbed much of the pre-Super Bowl spotlight and hype based on some of his on field/off-field antics and cockiness.  If Seattle was more psychologically mindful and aware, perhaps they would have known if there was no sensational and hype filled storylines, then that would create a vacuum that could only be filled by the ubiquitous question from the last 20 years, the stereotype threat of all stereotype threats, “can Peyton win the big game?”

And for us mere mortals, not playing Sunday, what does this all say about us and how we perform under pressure on an entrance exam or in a big pitch/meeting?  It suggests a need to expect anxiety in big moments.  We must do our best to anticipate when we might get triggered by heightened anxiety, knowing such tightness and locking up can exist, but setting realistic expectations about this fact.  And when we can expect something, we can do something about it.  In short, you can learn mindfulness skills and breathing techniques to keep one’s self calm, composed, and in some control of regulating one’s own anxiety.  This is often where something such as psychotherapy can be helpful.

But for our protagonist, Peyton, will he be able to breathe through it, manage himself and stay composed if the game comes down to a final mechanical action that he must make?  Can he Break on Through to Other Side and finally rid himself of the stereotype of “the guy who can’t win the big game?”  I guess that is why they play the game.  And this is why we crown champions.  For it is only those who conquer under pressure that we deem our true warriors.


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