Thunder not caring enough, or too much?

June, 18, 2012
6/18/12
2:13
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
A quick spin through the media reaction to the Heat's Game 3 win reveals a theme: The Thunder need to care more, embrace the moment, play for today, fire all of their guns, be more rageful, raise the adrenaline level, go harder ...

It's a juiced up collection of sports cliches that all suggest the Thunder ought to spend Game 4 running around like Mel Gibson in "Braveheart" screaming "AAAARRRRRRGGGHHHHH!"

To me, there is certainly value, in sports, in very high energy levels. Many of the games' best moments, and almost all of the highlights, are about very high adrenaline moments. Michael Jordan proved there is value in hatred as motivation, if you're built that way.

But more caring, raging or anger ... it is overblown as a solution for the Thunder, and more could even be damaging -- because research suggests the best results come not from the strongest emotion, but from the best balance. Caring a ton is one thing, but also important is being calm enough to master the game's more finicky chores, like the precision tasks of recognizing the defense, making sound decisions and, most importantly, shooting.

Sure, raging on might be what worked on your high school team, or in your beer league softball tournament. At that level, one guy on the court going 300 percent harder than everybody else is a competitive advantage, because at that level a lot of guys don't know how to care that much.

This, however, is the NBA Finals. These are professional athletes, who would have never made it to the NBA, let alone the Finals, if they didn't already embrace the challenge wholeheartedly. They did not get here by being lazy.

Tell me which player in these Finals doesn't care enough; they have all been waiting their entire lives for this opportunity.

Meanwhile, the series has been incredibly close -- 286-285 in favor of the Thunder after three games. A few little things go differently, and either team could be up 3-0.

And you know what has gone "differently" for the Thunder? Their free throw shooting. They simply have not done it very well. In the regular season they made 81 percent. In the Finals, they're at 71 percent, and they have been getting worse with each game, as the pressure mounts. In Game 3, the Thunder made just 15 of 24. If they had shot normally from the line, they might have won all three Finals games.

Here's the kicker: As researcher Justin Rao explained on NBA Today in April, psychologists have learned a lot about human performance. Really wanting to play well does help with certain kinds of vigorous tasks, like battling for an offensive rebound. Bring on your "Braveheart" mindset when there's a loose ball on the floor, for sure.

But as Rao and Matt Goldman showed brilliantly, when what's called for is concentration, more than effort -- most notably, at the free throw line -- caring more evidently hurts results. They showed this by looking at crunch-time free throws, when 19,000 screaming fans want the home team to win so badly.

The road team, the one that has to deal with all the screaming and distractions, they tend to shoot free throws absolutely normally in those moments. Amazingly, it's the home team, the team that is obsessed with being extra careful to hit those big freebies to please those fans, that tends to miss more than normal.

And the bigger the moment, the more the game is on the line, the bigger the effect.

Standing at the free throw line, obsessing over perfect form is not likely a good mentality. Instead, the way to get the most consistent results seems to be not to think about it too much, as in "you've been here a million times before, you know exactly how to do this, and there's nothing special this time." The researchers write:
Psychologists have argued that pressure can both distract, motivate and generate too much self-focus (thinking about the details of how one should accomplish a goal, as opposed to “just doing it"). Studies have implicated self-focus as the key factor in pressure-associated performance declines.

People have long made fun of Phil Jackson for putting his players through meditation and breathing exercises. But for all the experts urging rage, there sure seems to be a lot of value in calm.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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