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


November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.


Follow us


Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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