Choking in Sports
I was sitting in my chair in my room watching a college football game on ESPN2, and I was looking for a topic for my report. I knew it would have to do with sports in some way. As I was watching the game, I realized that this game was getting interesting. A unranked, unknown team was beating a ranked team with a whole lot of talent. The game was getting close and before I knew it there was only 7 second left in the game. The unranked team had the ball at their opponents 25 yard line and were inning up for a field goal. There kicker was going to be a pro soon and was automatic. He made three field goals already that game. He was inning for what seemed like an easy field goal. This field goal meant a huge upset. There was no wind. It was a shoe in, but the kick went wide. He shanked the kick and team lost. Why would he do that? He had the leg? Why did he shank it? That is what I am going to write about. I wanted to know why player choke and what does it do to their careers. I will dissect what happened to Mitch Williams and Scott Norwood. Two players who choked in big games and lost their careers because of it. They played in two different sports, but have similar positions. I will go through each position and what the NFL and MLB expects of these players. I will show you what kind of pressure Mitch Williams and Scott Norwood went through. I will use articles from sport web sites, and articles from Newsday magazine. I think that choking effects so many people and the outcome of games. Fantastic athletes that do there job with ease, but when it comes down to the big game, they play like how you and I would play.
First, lets examine what a kicker’s job is in the sport of football(specifically in the NFL). The kicker is a specialist who’s sole purpose is to kick the football into the goal post. In the NFL, if the kicker fails to kick the field goal in about 80 to 90 percent of the time, the kicker is released or fired. This is the way the NFL is. The trick to being a great NFL kicker is consistency and wits. The kicker makes, at average, the league minimum which is $250,000 a year.(Tj Simers, 1997) They only receive one to two year contracts. The biggest being Morten Andersen, who is one of the greatest kickers of all time, so you have to be the best to get good contracts. His contract is for about five years, all not guaranteed, for $870,000 dollars a year. There are reasons for this. The big thing for kickers in the NFL these days are a strong legged kicker who can make the 50+ yard field goals on command. The need for short range, but automatic kickers like Gary Anderson, kicker for The Minnesota Vikings, is not being emphasized. Most teams are all looking for the Morten Andersens and the Jason Elams.(Peter King, 1998) Although, like life you can’t have both unless you are the cream of the crop. John Hall has one of the biggest legs in the business, but he only made 18 field goals out of 27 tries. This is not a good average, but since he can make these long field goal with ease, he keeps his job, for now. Most of the kicker hired are fired within only two years because they cannot keep this same standard and not have a toll on them physically and mentally which bring us to my topic.
"Chris Jacke and Adam Vinatieri are hoping Super Bowl XXXI won't come down to a last-gasp field goal, because they both have a case of the nerves. Jacke and Vinatieri both realize the Super Bowl can be a graveyard for a field-goal kicker. One "wide right" one, in particular, was SB XXV goat Scott Norwood of the Buffalo Bills. I was pulling for Norwood. In that situation, you have to pull for the kicker. "I felt for Scott Norwood," said Jacke. "So much was made of that one missed kick. Obviously, it ended his career." Actually, Norwood came back and kicked one more season (1991) for the Bills, but he was never the same. (Ray Buck, 1992)
He's now retired and lives in Virginia. According to a Buffalo team spokesman, "He doesn't stay in touch with us anymore." The Pack and Pats were where they were two years ago, in large part, because their kickers didn’t choke. Jacke, a noted long-range kicker, made 77.8 percent of his field-goal attempts (21 of 27) that season, although he was seldom tested in pressure situations. Vinatieri was under more pressure -- and stayed busier -- making 27 of 35 FG attempts. "This is a different kind of pressure," said Vinatieri. "In training camp, there was pressure going against a veteran like Matt Bahr. Then once I made the team, there was pressure not only to kick well but I had to kick well because Matt Bahr no longer was here." Jacke came out of Texas-El Paso. On the surface, he is more laid-back than Vinatieri. Inside, they are both the same -- nervous. "It'll be just another kick as long as it doesn't end my career," said Jacke. "Would I welcome the chance? No. Would I go out there? "I'd have to."" (Ray Buck, 1992)
This article was written two years ago, but the attitude towards the winning kick is still the same. Kickers cringe at the thought of the game having to be in their hands, and rightfully so. They don’t hang out with the rest of the team, they are basically outcast. Yet, they are supposed to come in and win the game for their team. They know that if they miss, in any game not just the Super Bowl, they might lose their job and in the case of Scott Norwood the rest of their career. I did not paraphrase this article because this article is important it’s whole tot my paper. It was written in 1991.
"Scott Norwood, who etched his name in Giants lore by missing a potential game-winning field goal in Super Bowl XXV, was placed on waivers yesterday by the Bills. The move wasn't a surprise. The 31-year-old place-kicker, who was the club's all-time leading scorer with 670 points, became expendable in February when Buffalo signed former Buccaneers kicker Steve Christie. (Rich Cimini, 1991)
Norwood's clutch kicking helped establish the Bills as an AFC power in the late 1980s, but his early accomplishments were overshadowed by his miss in the Super Bowl. With four seconds left and the Bills trailing the Giants 20-19, Norwood missed wide right on a 47-yard attempt, giving the Giants their second Super Bowl title in five seasons. (Rich Cimini, 1991)
Norwood never lived it down. In fact, during that season's playoffs, he declined on occasion to discuss the kick. In his seven-year NFL career, Norwood made 72 percent of his field goals, but his percentage dropped steadily, from 86 percent in 1988 to 62 percent last season. (Rich Cimini, 1991)
Now there could be other reason for the decrease in productivity and the releasing of the kicker. Free agency had been introduced and they had signed a better kicker, Steve Christie, but you can defiantly attribute this downfall to his career to the missed kick that he will forever be known for. He had gone through allot in the past year. I have already told you about the kicker position and what a kicker had to go through, but there is the media and the fans. I think this article is suffice in proving my point as this was written in the end of Scott Norwood’s last season as a kicker.
Those close to Norwood claim he hasn't been affected by the intense scrutiny. But make no mistake, he hears the whispers around town and, who knows, maybe in his own locker room." (Rich Cimini, 1991)
Scott Norwood was one of the best kickers in the league until the kick. Now think to yourself "What if he would have made it?" The answer would be that I wouldn’t have much a paper to write. I believe that due to the stress of missing that kick, he was no longer able to be a the kicker he once was. Now god knows that some players can bounce back from something like this, but in the most case stuff like this can be as traumatic as getting in a car accident and then developing a fear for driving. The mind develops a kind of safety guard that helps protect us from that kind of extreme stress again and it can dramatically affect the way the player performs. Let’s take the next case for example, except let’s use a different game.
A closer in baseball is a relieve pitcher the comes in usually in the 8th or 9th innings to keep the opponent from scoring to preserve the lead that eventually leads to a win. This position doesn’t have as much pressure for the player to perform as a kicker would. If a closer blows a save, he will not lose his job, and their are 162 games in a season, so during a season it won’t mean that much of a difference if the team loses a game. Although, in the case I will give to you, this was no ordinary game. This was game six of the World Series. It was the bottom of the 9th and The Philadelphia Phillies had a one run lead. Just like Scott Norwood, Mitch Williams was having a great season and a memorable career. He was affectionately known as "Wild Thing" by the Philadelphia fans.
""The best thing a closer can have is a short memory," he said. It was in 1993 when he was Wild Thing, the untamed relief pitcher on the dirty-shirt Phillies who shocked the Braves and went to Game 6 of the World Series. There were John Kruk, Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton and the guys, and Mitch - "gypsies, tramps and thugs," he called them. Not a role model in the lot. Philadelphia loved that team. "I loved that team," Williams said. "They were the best people. I loved playing with them. When the season ended, we were spent." (Steve Jacobson,1995)
And devastated. Mitch Williams tried to come back with Kansas City. The Royals were trying to find something among five non-roster veteran left-handers here. A psychiatrist might say Williams is trying to find himself, or lose himself.(Steve Jacobson,1995)
What does a tightrope walker remember when he falls, the times he went the distance, or the impact? There is no safety net for the closer. "Does he say, `Man, I don't ever want to work without a net again'?" said Royals manager Bob Boone, the resident psychiatrist.(Steve Jacobson,1995)
He took a two-run lead into the ninth inning of the sixth game as the Phillies improbably were about to even the Series. Williams got an out and the Blue Jays had two runners on, which was how he had escaped late in the season, and Joe Carter pierced the Phillies' hearts with a home run. Never has the World Series ended with a home run that reversed the score, before or since.(Steve Jacobson,1995)
He understands the mentality. "For some people I was the villain, no question," Williams said. "I know whatever I do, I'll be remembered for that. I don't want my career to end with the last two seasons the way they were." The kind of guy he is, if his career had been ended by a runaway beer truck in '93, he would have called it "great." It was the best year he ever had. He wasn't a tidy closer. He pitched at the brink of disaster all the time. Jim Fregosi cringed, didn't especially like him, but he knew Wild Thing accepted the call. He pitched in 65 games, struck out 60 in 62 innings and had 43 saves.(Steve Jacobson,1995)
How quickly that was forgotten. Williams yesterday recalled the soccer player who was the national goat of the '94 World Cup, went home to Colombia and was shot dead in the street. Williams got death threats.(Steve Jacobson,1995)
Eggs and stones were thrown at his house. "I could take it," he said. "But my wife and kid were in the house." Threats on his life were phoned to the ball club. Cops were stationed near his home. "They didn't tell me until I saw cops at the park the next day," he said.(Steve Jacobson,1995)
He didn't sleep after Carter's home run, either. What some of us recall was that SkyDome was filled with joyous thunder and the Phillies' clubhouse was the Atlanta railroad station from "Gone With the Wind." Players sat in stunned silence while Wild Thing whipped himself before waves of questioners. "Some guys have to interview the guy who hit the home run and some the guy who threw it," he said yesterday. "I wasn't going to run from it."(Steve Jacobson,1995)
He was traded to Houston that December. Perhaps it was because his market value was peak, perhaps it was because Philadelphia couldn't be expected to forgive, perhaps it was because he had lost some of his fastball as the season wore him down. He was what Boone called "an adrenaline-pitcher." He threw himself at the batter as hard as he could. "I always thought the pressure was my advantage," Williams said. "The hitter wants to be the hero - the ego thing. They swing at pitches they normally wouldn't."(Steve Jacobson,1995)
He went from 43 saves to six with Houston to none with California, to a struggling half-season in the minors that ended last August when the Phillies decided he'd never get himself together to be of value to them again. "The home run didn't change me," he said. "What bothered me was everybody saying my fastball was going away." (Steve Jacobson,1995)
So he tried to throw harder to prove them wrong. Ralph Branca said Bobby Thomson's home run didn't bother him, it was trying to prove it didn't bother him that ruined his arm. "I tried to throw 100 and ruined my mechanics," Williams said. "I was going to prove them wrong. In the process I proved them right." (Steve Jacobson,1995)
Now of course my report just tells of two cases, of which a player "choked" and after that could not recover from it. I am sure there has been players that have given up the game winner and came back to have good careers. I can't use Mark Wohlers, who gave up the base hit to Edgar Renteria in the 1997 World Series, he also has hit a downfall in his career. I can't use him in my report because although the problem is psychological. I personally don't think it has to do with the game winning hit he gave up because no one placed much emphasis on him. They instead focused on Edgar Renteria's base hit. Did you know that Greg Maddox gave up the game winning home run to Steve Finley this year to give The San Diego Padres the NL pennant? He is one the best pitchers to ever play the game. So what can come from this report. Well, basically nothing if you asked me. Kicker and closers no that they have to go through the pressure of the game they are in. Also, you have to understand, these players are the cream of the crop and still make allot of money by our standards. The average closer makes about 2.5 million a year in baseball because it is such an overwhelmingly demanding position. It take allot of skill and craft. Most closer are not young. The youngest successful closer in Kary Lightenburg. Keep in mind though it is his first year. Older pitchers are closer because that can handle the pressure, but how can an pitcher, not just an old pitcher, take the stress he must endure to keep his job and do it effectively. The same goes for the NFL. The NFL wants gritty vets who get the job done, and can do it with a little leg.
Sports "Choking" isn’t a life threatning disease. It is just a condition that happens when pressure situations arise the player, who would normally be able to make it doesn’t because of the pressure the can come with that situation. The experment deals with pressure situations and tells weather there is such a situation.
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