Effort vs. Concentration: The Asymmetric Impact of Pressure on NBA Performance (2012 ESPN Fan’s Choice Winner)

How and why does performance change under pressure? Psychologists have argued that pressure can both distract, motivate and generate too much self-focus (thinking about the details of how one should accomplish a goal, as opposed to “just doing it”). Studies have implicated self-focus as the key factor in pressure-associated performance declines. To understand if these results extend to highly trained experts, we examine two fundamentally different actions within the context of the same professional sport, basketball. The first action, free throw shooting, requires quiet concentration, while the second, offensive rebounding, is based on effort exerted in the heat of the moment. Home vs. Away variation allows us to understand how a supportive audience moderates the impact of pressure. We find that home free throw shooters do significantly worse in clutch situations, with the effect being larger for poor shooters. Road players show no change in behavior under pressure, indicating distraction plays a limited role in this task. In stark contrast, the home team gets significantly better at offensive rebounding in pressure packed moments, while again the road team shows no relationship between performance and pressure. The results show a clear asymmetric impact of a supportive audience—it can both inspire effort and lead to detrimental self-focus, even for experienced agents. From a sports perspective, it shows how the traditional notion of home-court advantage is not inconsistent with some pressure-related disadvantages (“home choke”).

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