Under pressure: What big games do to players and how they cope

Nothing feels normal when the whole world's watching.

You're in the NBA Finals, playing the most important game of your life, and things don't feel right. You don't know why, but you damn sure know they don't.

"Everything is magnified," explained Dr. Leonard D. Zaichkowsky. But it's not just the fact that there's a title on the line: "There's going to be different lighting, the music will be even louder, and [there's] just more attention."

And yet, you've got to perform. It's Zaichkowsky's job to help you do that.

Zaichkowsky is a world-renowned expert in sports psychology who just wrapped up a 27-year career as a professor at Boston University, during which he served as the consulting sport psychologist for BU's athletics department.

All of the external trappings that make big games like tonight's Game 1 between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics seem different are, in Zaichkowsky's view, "nothing more than distractions." And the players on the floor need to remember that.

"Making them aware" is the key, he told Ball Don't Lie during a recent interview. "Their focus is so important, their concentration, and these little distractions ... they're subtle, but they add up."

Zaichkowsky ought to know; he's been teaching players how to dispense with distraction and focus on their function for decades. In fact, he said, he "started a lot of this stuff in about 1985, before it was very common to do this stuff."

"This stuff" is the application of principles of psychophysiology — a branch of psychology that studies the interaction between functions of the mind and body and how something that impacts one can impact the other — to the world of sports. Zaichkowsky's colleague, Bruno Demichelis, has made headway into the use of psychophysiology, biofeedback and neurofeedback in professional sports. Through his company MindRoom Sports Science Inc., Demichelis has had major success in Europe, working first with Italian soccer powerhouse A.C. Milan before bringing his methods to the English Premier League as the director of sport science for Chelsea F.C.

Thus far, no North American sports franchise has taken the leap, but Zaichkowsky said he's confident that day's coming soon.

"Yeah, absolutely, it's going to catch on," he said. "It just makes too much sense — if you give people the right kind of feedback, they're just going to perform, learn to control and self-regulate their stress responses a lot better."

As Zaichkowsky described it, his expertise lies in "really preparing athletes to better control their emotions and control their thinking, basically under pressure." That preparation begins long before the refs roll the ball out.

"Now, you take a game like basketball, where [players are] running up and down the court, oftentimes heart rate is driven by the demands on the court," Zaichkowsky said. "But it's also driven by the emotional intensity ... Even before they hit the court, their heart rate is elevated unusually high. So their job is to bring that down, because they're going to under-perform with that elevated heart rate."

High-pressure moments also often lead to elevated muscle tension, according to Zaichkowsky, which offers an explanation for every fan's late-game nightmare.

"So why are they missing those foul shots, for example?" he said. "It's because of the muscle tension — something they're not perceiving, but it just doesn't seem right. But what's happening is, their muscles tense up, and that fluidity, that easiness that they normally [have] in practice or non-pressure-packed games, that's gone."

Few settings are as pressure-packed as championship rounds like the NBA Finals, where the eyes of a nation follow the ball's every bounce. And with most players just as susceptible to anxiety as the rest of us — with some exceptions, which we'll get to in a minute — how does Zaichkowsky get athletes ready to perform in those high-tension moments?

The first step: Letting them know what's happening to them.

"They're typically not made aware of what happens to their heart rate, for example, under pressure — what happens to their skin conductance responses [in layman's terms, how their sweat glands react], what happens to muscle tension," Zaichkowsky explained. "Usually, these are all elevated stress responses, and they're not really very much aware of that."

By conducting medical tests to measure elements like heart rate, skin conductance, muscle tension, respiration, body temperature and electrical activity in the brain, Zaichkowsky collects biological and neurological feedback that he uses not only to give athletes a behind-the-scenes look at how playing affects them, but also to show them that they can control their reactions "so they can perform better on the court," he said.

Which begs the question: How do you teach them that self-control? Zaichkowsky acknowledged that getting players to buy in and developing their regulatory skills can be a slow process, but it tends to go more smoothly with young players.

"Today's young athletes, you know, they're more into high-tech-ish kinds of things. You can make [the tests] into games, and through the games they can learn to self-regulate," Zaichkowsky said. "They say, 'My God, this is what happens?'"

One tried-and-true tactic with which fans might be familiar involves the use of DVDs. Coaches frequently have video assistants cut together clip packages for player instruction — several minutes of a jump-shooter hitting threes to help him regain confidence in his shot, for example, or numerous instances of missed defensive rotations to illustrate assignment responsibilities. Well, the doctor uses 'em, too.

"... You can just show them, 'Look, let's just look at a video clip of yourself playing.' They're sitting there, looking at their heart rate go from 75 [beats per minute] to about 120, and all they're doing is watching themselves play," he said. "Then you say, 'Now, can you bring that down? What do you have to do?' That's when you get into teaching them how to breathe properly; you can take slow, deep breaths to kind of calm the whole physiology. And all of a sudden, they see that this works almost instantaneously, and it's a skill they didn't have. So you say, 'Now, let's go practice it.'"

Sounds simple enough, right? Just take some deep breaths and you're good to go. But with 19,000 fans screaming their lungs out in the arena, millions more watching at home and the knowledge that every moment in your life has led up to this one, players can feel like the weight of the world rests on their chest every time they inhale. And that's without considering any external factors — stuff like family matters or personal-life concerns, which Zaichkowsky calls "clinical issues," that can break a player's concentration.

The key is to simulate big-game pressure in no-consequence situations so that players can have a ready-for-prime-time skill set when the spotlight starts shining. Unfortunately, the doctor wasn't quite so forthcoming with his secrets for raising the stakes in advance of the big game.

Zaichkowsky did tell BDL, though, that he often tries to get players' minds right by invoking examples of highly successful people who deal with enormous pressure all the time, like Fortune 500 CEOs or world-renowned surgeons.

"It's not winning or losing a game; you're losing a life if you screw up with the scalpel," he said. "... I'll give them stories like, 'Here's how they prepare for surgery, and it's because they don't want to screw up. This is a pressure-packed thing. There's lots of blood flowing, and they've got to work quickly and accurately, so it's about decision-making, all the time. And isn't that the same as what you guys are doing? It's decision-making. Quick, accurate decisions. But it's not life-and-death. It's winning and losing games here.'

"I'll tell them how they cope with pressure, how they prepare for major surgery," he continued. "I'll say, 'They pay attention to all the details. How many of you guys do that?'"

That kind of attention to detail and preparation can make all the difference when you're playing for a ring.

"As you can tell, basketball in the NBA is going to be different now than it is during the regular season," Zaichkowsky said. "... It's just ratcheted up to another level. And what happens is, some individuals just thrive under pressure. They don't perceive it as pressure, is what they tell me. Like, you know, 'What's the big deal? It's just another game for me. I've just got to ratchet it up.'"

In several decades as a sports psychologist consulting for Boston University, the Calgary Flames, the Spanish men's national soccer team and Olympic competitors, Zaichkowsky has met a number of those cold-blooded individuals. Including one who'll suit up tonight.

Zaichkowsky served as a consulting psychologist for the Boston Celtics during Rick Pitino's ill-fated late 1990s/early 2000s reign. And while Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish never did walk through the FleetCenter's doors, one future Garden great did, after being selected with the 10th pick in the 1998 NBA Draft.

Of the C's with whom Zaichkowsky worked, "there's only one left in captivity there — it's Paul Pierce(notes)," the doctor said with a laugh. "And for sure, he was [cool under pressure], right from the get-go. He just loved the pressure-packed games; you know, the bigger the game, the better he performed. There's not a lot of those people, but there's a sufficient number. They're just wired differently. They just love that moment, and perform well under pressure."

Just one problem for the Beantown faithful: While Zaichkowsky said he's never had the chance to work with Kobe Bryant(notes), his description also sounds an awful lot like what we've seen from No. 24 in purple and gold for the past 14 years.

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