Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


A Tradition of Choking Under Pressure in Sports

• September 28, 2011 • 11:29 AM

Data from major soccer tournaments suggest a sports team’s history of failure can impact the performance of players — even those who didn’t participate in the futile earlier effort.

In poignantly predictable baseball news, the Chicago Cubs have once again failed to reach the postseason. Some fans speak of the team as being cursed, while others dismiss that notion as an excuse for poor play or bad management.

After all, they ask, why would the failure of one group of guys in, say, 1969 (when they famously collapsed in September) or 1984 (when they just missed becoming National League champions) have any impact on an entirely different group of players in 2011?

Well, a new study of soccer tournaments finds a team’s history of failure can hurt the performances of its players — including those who weren’t part of the losing effort. This suggests a team’s propensity to choke in high-pressure situations may become self-perpetuating.

“This paper demonstrates, for the first time I believe, that sports teams’ historical outcomes seem to affect individual players’ present-day performances, even for players who were not personally part of the teams’ history,” said Geir Jordet of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences.

A research team led by Jordet examined video footage of every penalty shootout held in two major international soccer tournaments — the World Cup and the European Championships — between 1976 and 2006. Such shootouts are used to decide a winner when two teams are tied after overtime play.

The researchers looked at the talent level of each team, plus their records in earlier games in the tournament. Then, for each of the 309 penalty kicks, they assessed a) whether the winning goal was scored, b) whether the winning goal was scored the last time the team was in this situation, and c) which members of the squad were on the team when that prior won or loss occurred.

They found teams that had lost the preceding shootout made 65.7 percent of these game-winning goals. That’s far below the 85.1 percent of such goals made by those teams that had won the previous shootout. Those with no previous major penalty shootouts made the goal 76.4 percent of the time.

Intriguingly, the researchers report this pattern was “also found with players who took no personal part in the preceding games,” which had sometimes occurred years earlier. Although they hadn’t shared in the glory or shame of the past win or loss, these players’ performances differed very little from those of their teammates.

“Players on teams who lost the preceding penalty shootout, but who were not personally involved in that preceding game, scored on 67.2% of their attempts, whereas players on teams who won the preceding shootout scored on 83.3%,” the researchers report.

“It is unlikely that the effects found in this study merely come from the most skillful teams consistently winning and/or the least skillful teams consistently losing,” the researchers write in the British Journal of Psychology, “as the teams with preceding losses in penalty shootouts featured more high-ability players, and took more points in the preceding regular games, than the teams with preceding wins.”

In other words, having a better team on paper proved less important than the confidence-boosting knowledge that your team has had prior success in this crucial situation.

“It is possible that simply playing for a team with a history of preceding losses is accompanied by higher degrees of performance pressure,” the researchers speculate. This emotional discomfort may “compel players to hurry up their preparation in order to end the situation as quickly as possible,” they write. Conversely, “playing for a team with a history of preceding wins may be accompanied by less performance pressure and lower levels of emotional distress, making players slow down their preparation and focus more on the shot,” they add.

Of course, baseball has no eqiuvalent to the penalty shootout. But the American game presents countless opportunities to rush, and therefore blow, key plays.

Jordet’s analysis focused on the impact of recent wins and losses, so his findings can’t entirely explain the Cubs’ prolonged haplessness, but in an aside that will resonate with Wrigley Field’s bleacher bums, he and his colleagues point out that the stereotype that haunts a particular club can impact players’ beliefs and behavior.

“It is possible that being aware of a positive or negative label on one’s team … may affect performance positively or negatively, respectively,” they write. That “lovable losers” label may be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


Follow us


That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.