Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Weight Of The Moment

A couple of years ago I worked with former NFL Coach Herm Edwards. He wears many hats in his post-coaching life, including motivational speaker. I asked him to give me a sample, and he launched into some fiery verse on the difference between anxiety vs pressure

It's not completely removed from one of my favorite Malcolm Gladwell chapters about choking vs panic. And it all applies to the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

Under this intense one-and-done spotlight, anxiety, pressure, panic, and choking all come together in a cruel witch's brew. What was Georgetown's Freddie Brown thinking when he passed the ball to North Carolina's James Worthy? Why did Chris Webber call timeout when Michigan had none remaining? How did Derrick Rose miss those free throws against Kansas?

Edwards says that anxiety is good, it's how you know the game is big. The butterflies make you feel alive. But pressure makes you so afraid of failure, that you stop doing the things that instinctually put you in this lofty position in the first place.

And in this 2013 edition of March Madness, we've seen some maddening examples of players and teams buckling under the pressure. If Davidson had completed a simple outlet pass, they would have upset Marquette. If Ole Miss had gotten a timeout after La Salle's go-ahead shot, Marshall Henderson may have been able to make his own NCAA history - but not from the bench. And then there was Kansas, who felt the pressure and fell in one of the all-time March Mishaps.

It's true that Michigan's Trey Burke made one unbelievable play after another to lift Michigan to the historic win, but it never should've been up to him. Unlike what Syracuse University has done to their opponents in this tournament, Kansas allowed Michigan to get close enough to create a miraculous circumstance. And there were a number of reasons it didn't have to be that way.

Kansas was led by top-notch head coach Bill Self and senior point guard Elijah Johnson. They had gotten to this point largely because of these guys but as events unfolded, everything unraveled.

With 2:34 remaining, Kansas led 72-62. Michigan had just missed back-to-back shots, and Johnson had come down with the rebound. As a fan watching at home (and as a TV producer), I would have expected Johnson to walk it up the court while the huge Kansas fan presence gave a standing ovation for a victory that was imminent.

Inexplicably, Johnson forced his dribble into traffic and turned it over resulting in a dunk at the other end. So now the Jayhwaks were only up 8 with 2:22 left. Kansas not only failed to score, but failed to use clock, and Michigan chipped away until it was within a single prayer of a shot.

From that point on, Johnson had lost his mind. There was the key turnover, the missed free throws, the seemingly open layup he missed at the end of the OT session. But his coach wasn't much better. They actually came out of a late timeout in overtime with 6 guys on the floor.

So how do you explain all this? One and done makes you crazy, and when the game's on the line any play could be your last.

Trey Burke was a hero because there was nothing to lose. He had the anxiety, the desperation to save his team. Elijah Johnson crumbled because there was everything to lose. He only had the pressure not to blow it - which of course became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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