The Decision has led to The Derision, and many are now calling LeBron James a choker.
Let's stay away from that label. But let's also ask: Why do great athletes sometimes fail to show up in important situations? Why did James, so dominant in fourth quarters leading up to the NBA Finals -- don't forget his incredible finish against the Pistons in the '07 playoffs -- start making high school mistakes when it counted most?
And is there a way he can confront this problem and overcome it?
There are answers, and they go all the way back to the 1989 Stanley Cup Final. One of the Calgary Flames, coming back to the dressing room right before the opening faceoff in Game 1, turned to the team's sport psychologist and made a confession:
The psychologist was named Hap Davis, and he has spent more than a generation examining why athletes succumb to pressure. He thinks he's found an answer, and it sheds light on both LeBron James' poor play in and Dirk Nowitzki's emotional response to winning in a whole new way.
In moments of fear, the human body produces cortisol, which helps its fight-or-flight mechanism. When you hear a story about a mother lifting a stalled car off her child to save his life, that's cortisol at work. But cortisol is not what a great athlete needs in a defining moment. In fact, cortisol may get in the way of an essential ingredient for athletic performance: Testosterone.
"That's what comes with ability to stay in the moment -- frontal cortex activation, motor cortex activation and elevation in testosterone," Davis says.
Translation: Athletes who "stay focused" (to use a cliché) keep producing testosterone, which stimulates the part of the brain wired for motor skills such as shooting or dribbling.
"What we've seen in winners is huge testosterone-to-cortisol balance," Davis says. "When they're on their game, we see evidence that there may be an elevation of testosterone. When people are losing, they are overwhelmed with emotion. That's cortisol."
Now here's the twist: Davis has found that when top athletes have a traumatic experience in a game or event, and then return to a similar moment (such as the fourth quarter of the NBA Finals), they often start producing cortisol. Davis has worked for years with the Canadian Olympic team, and he's seen swimmers do perfectly well for years, in every competition, and then fall apart when they get to a scenario reminiscent of one where they struggled four or eight years earlier. It's the exact same stroke or race, but it's a completely different moment. The athlete responds not to the event, but to the moment.
In fact, whenever athletes start thinking about the pride or pain of winning or losing, they can become overwhelmed with emotion and unable to perform the basic duties of playing in the present.
"The moment someone thinks about the reward," Davis says, "they are in a whole different space."
So you see the brilliance of what Dirk Nowitzki did in Game 6. He held his emotions back until the second the game ended and the title was won. Then he hustled to the locker room to cry. He was completely unemotional and then he was completely emotional. It was the opposite of what so-called "chokers" do.
So what's the best way to overcome this? How can LeBron James turn back into the fourth-quarter beast he used to be? Move on and forget the 2011 NBA Finals ever happened?
Nope. Davis says the best way to erase the past is to dwell on it. Watch the failure again and again and again on tape until it evokes zero emotional response. Watch the disaster until you're so numb to it that it feels like someone else is doing the failing.
"I've worked with too many athletes who say, 'Screw it, it's a bad game,' ” Davis says. "Some people will get away with 'Forget about it.' But most athletes will find that's a bad idea. They haven't got past the emotional experience."
Davis assisted on an experiment in which athletes were asked to watch a video of themselves in a game, and then perform squat jumps. Athletes who watched themselves doing well jumped significantly higher than those who watched themselves do poorly.
So according to this theory, LeBron should spend the summer watching the fourth quarter of every Finals game. At some point, he'll be able to break down that wretched film just like a coach would. Then, when he returns to the waning minutes of a Finals game, he'll be driven more by the desire to correct the mistakes than the fear of reliving them.
And what happens if an athlete finds himself coming undone in a game? Well, that's what happened to the unnamed Calgary Flames player in 1989. Davis pulled him off the bench and told him to get on the exercise bike and race like mad for a couple of minutes. That got the testosterone flowing and stimulated the motor cortex. The player took the ice and did fine. The Flames won the Cup.
LeBron James will probably get back to the Finals, maybe within a year. The sports world will be watching to see how he reacts at crunch time. But how he reacts this summer might make the difference between "choker" and "champion."
Email Eric Adelson at email@example.com.
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