Research Paper on Psychological Effects in Various Forms of Competition


With the clock winding down in the fourth quarter of a win-or-go-home Eastern Conference Semifinal Game, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ superstar, attempted a free throw—and airballed it. While many factors could have caused this, the commentators described it as a combination of fatigue and the crowd distracting him with a combination of chanting, booing, and waving colored sticks, desperately trying to get into his head. Though I was deeply immersed in the game, the comment didn't manage to elude me. 

After the game, which by the way ended in heartbreak, the comment kept repeating itself in the back of my mind. I therefore set out to do some research on psychological effects in various forms of competition.

As I started brainstorming, I realized that some games were based entirely upon, or at least partially upon, psychology. For instance, at the start of the movie Crazy Rich Asians, Constance Wu’s character, Rachel Chu, a college professor teaching game theory, destroys her assistant in a poker game by bluffing and declaring “I’m all in.” Her opponent, who has a full house, cracks under the pressure and folds. Then, she reveals her hand, and the whole classroom erupts in applause and shock. Afterwards, she explains her train of thought: Curtis (her assistant), a “cheap” person, was playing not according to logic or math but rather by gut instinct. When confronted with a huge stack of poker chips, he was unable to keep his emotions in check and gave up the hand. As she says, “He wasn’t playing to win, he was playing to not lose.” On the other hand, experienced players are less likely to be moved by such a suicidal action and will make the logical decision. As a result, blindly bluffing is much less popular at higher levels. 

As my inspiration came from the free throws in basketball, I was quite interested in how much and how often free throw shooters were affected by psychological factors. We would expect the hostile crowd to have at least a slight impact on free throw shooters, right? 

Actually, according to a study by the Sloan Sports Science Conference, NBA shooters on the home team are the ones who seem to be more affected by the psychological factor. They do significantly worse from the stripe in clutch situations, while road players are relatively unaffected under pressure. Therefore, the psychological effects on free throw shooters seem to have nothing to do with hostile environments.

So then, if not the crowd, then what causes shooters to miss by wide margins from the free throw line? It seems that sometimes, a shooter may be affected by their performance in the (recent) past, which may cause self-doubt. A famous example was Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals. With his team up by three points in the closing seconds of the game, Orlando Magic wing Nick Anderson missed two free throws in a row, when one would have put the game out of reach. Then, he grabbed the rebound and got fouled again, which put him at the line for two more. Lo and behold, his third shot went long, after which he fake-smiled to himself. At that moment, even Orlando fans started losing faith in him to make the last one. Sure enough, he missed again, which eventually led to disaster for the Magic. Another more recent example is Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers, who is having a terrible postseason free-throw-wise. Normally a 60 percent free throw shooter, he has only shot 33 percent in the playoffs, which is one of the worst stats in NBA history, and has even led to teams intentionally fouling him rather than waste energy trying to defend his teammates. 

As commentators like to say, “The ability to forget is a sign of greatness.” What this means is that superstars don’t dwell on past failures and concentrate on the present. A player like Stephen Curry, who does exceptionally well in making clutch free throws, is an example. He led his team to three NBA titles—and is still hungry for more. Another example is Kobe Bryant, the Black Mamba. He possessed such a strong mindset that he was willing to keep shooting on a bad day—even if he would be under intense scrutiny barring a win. He is considered one of the all-time greats. Self-confidence, and the ability to zone in on the present, is what makes a great basketball player. 

As a strong chess amateur, I am often plagued by psychological pressure during games. Looking back at tournament records and thinking back to how I felt at each moment, I realized that my stress actually occurred in situations where I was objectively advantaged, according to both skill level and the position, and also when I had just suffered an upsetting defeat or squandered an opportunity. By contrast, I felt quite calm in objectively worse circumstances, or when matched up against a higher rated opponent.

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