Basketball teams playing for survival in critical NBA playoffs are more likely to lose

June 12, 2018, Frontiers
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

If a sports team plays a critical game in which losing means elimination from a league, do they work harder to win—or does the high pressure mean they are more likely to make mistakes and lose? A new study in Frontiers in Psychology suggests the latter, finding that basketball teams playing for survival in critical NBA playoff games are more likely to lose. This suggests that the threat of elimination caused the teams to 'choke.' The study is the first to illustrate this effect in a real-world team sports environment—and may be applicable to a variety of high-pressure performance situations, such as those found in the workplace.

With the NBA 2018 finals drawing to a close, many teams will have experienced intense pressure to avoid elimination by winning critical games during the playoffs. Researchers are working to understand how athletes and others handle pressure, and how this affects their performance. Previous studies led some researchers to predict that high-pressure situations can help to focus minds and increase motivation, leading to increased success.

"Theories predict that individuals exert the most effort, and therefore produce their best performances, when the possible returns for their success—or the consequences of their failure—are highest," says Dr. Yair Galily, of the Interdisciplinary Center, Hertzlya, Israel.

However, other studies found evidence that high-pressure situations can lead to reduced performance and less success, when someone becomes overly focused on how to complete a task, rather than just doing it.

Many of these previous studies looked at performance under pressure in controlled conditions, such as asking soccer players to take penalty kicks while observed by researchers. Until now, no-one had explored the effect of high-pressure situations on performance in a real-world team situation.

To investigate this, Galily and a colleague examined stats from NBA , to see how athletes with a lot at stake coped with varying degrees of pressure in real games. The researchers predicted that teams would perform better when their backs are against the wall—meaning they would be more likely to win critical playoff games where losing meant thier elimination.

"We analyzed 1,930 playoff games to test this prediction," says Galily. "We calculated the probability that a team would win, if losing meant that they faced elimination from the playoffs."

The researchers included the relative strength of the teams in their calculations to make sure that their results took this into account. Strikingly, they found that the threat of elimination actually made teams more likely to lose, suggesting that they choked in 'sink or swim' games.

The effect was significant. For example, the researchers found that if a home team had a 65% general win probability during the playoffs, this was reduced to 55% in games that were critical for the home team, but not the guest team. However, if the was critical for the guest team, and not the home team, the home team's win probability increased to almost 74%.

This is the first time that anyone has studied this effect in teams in a real-world environment, so more studies are necessary to further understand the phenomenon. However, the results are not just applicable to team sports, but could have wide-reaching implications.

"The results from our analysis are relevant to the workforce and many other domains," says Galily. "We suggest that leaders and managers should refrain from deliberately building high-pressure environments to try to enhance in their subordinates. They should adopt the 'just do it and enjoy' path."

Explore further: NFL teams play better during night games thanks to circadian advantages

More information: Frontiers in Psychology (2018). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00979

Related Stories

NFL teams play better during night games thanks to circadian advantages

June 4, 2018
Pilot data from a recent study suggest that NFL teams have better performance during night games versus afternoon games due to advantages from circadian rhythms.

Recommended for you

Psychiatric disorders share an underlying genetic basis

June 21, 2018
Psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often run in families. In a new international collaboration, researchers explored the genetic connections between these and other disorders of the brain at ...

One year of school comes with an IQ bump, meta-analysis shows

June 21, 2018
A year of schooling leaves students with new knowledge, and it also equates with a small but noticeable increase to students' IQ, according to a systematic meta-analysis published in Psychological Science, a journal of the ...

Ketamine acts fast to treat depression and its effects last—but how?

June 21, 2018
In contrast to most antidepressant medications, which can take several weeks to reduce depressive symptoms, ketamine—a commonly used veterinary anesthetic—can lift a person out of a deep depression within minutes of its ...

Mindful movement may help lower stress, anxiety

June 21, 2018
Taking a walk may be a good opportunity to mentally review your to-do list, but using the time to instead be more mindful of your breathing and surroundings may help boost your wellbeing, according to researchers.

Brain tingles—first study of its kind reveals physiological benefits of ASMR

June 21, 2018
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) – the relaxing 'brain tingles' experienced by some people in response to specific triggers, such as whispering, tapping and slow hand movements – may have benefits for both ...

New study debunks Dale Carnegie advice to 'put yourself in their shoes'

June 21, 2018
Putting yourself in someone else's shoes and relying on intuition or "gut instinct" isn't an accurate way to determine what they're thinking or feeling," say researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), the ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

zorro6204
5 / 5 (1) Jun 12, 2018
If losing meant elimination, then that meant the team in that position had won fewer games than the opponent (a final game tie would mean a 50/50 outcome, given that both teams were playing for elimination). So the fact that they win fewer games could just mean they were the lesser team, and there's no choke factor at all. Indeed, if there was some way to measure talent, possibly the real effect is the other way around.
MarsBars
not rated yet Jun 13, 2018
...the fact that they win fewer games could just mean they were the lesser team, and there's no choke factor at all...

Zorro, according to the article:
The researchers included the relative strength of the teams in their calculations to make sure that their results took this into account.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.