Thursday, April 8, 2010

Is Sachin Tendulkar "choking" his opponents into submission?

Do bowlers raise their game when bowling to Sachin Tendulkar, or do they get intimidated by his 'superstar' reputation and "choke"? Most cricket commentators would have it that competing against Tendulkar makes everyone else step up their game and perform better. But conventional tournament and contest theory suggests that large inherent skill differences between competitors can have the perverse effect of reducing effort incentives under competition. So who is correct?

Sherwin Rosen had originally coined the term "superstar effect" to describe how the small number of big stars of soccer and major league baseball earn the lion's share of remuneration and dominate the fields in which they engage - a "winner-takes-all" effect that dominates all major labor markets.

In an interesting working paper, Kellogg School Professor Jennifer Brown, analyzed data from every player in every PGA Tour event from 1999 to 2006 for the impact of Tiger Woods on other players, and found that his presence was "de-motivating" on and adversely affected the performance of competitors. She writes,

"Managers use internal competition to motivate worker effort, yet economic theory suggests that the benefits of competition may depend critically on workers relative abilities - large differences in skill may reduce competitors' efforts... the presence of a superstar in a rank-order (golf) tournament is associated with lower competitor performance. On average, higher-skill PGA golfers' first-round scores are approximately 0.2 strokes higher when Tiger Woods participates, relative to when Woods is absent. The overall superstar effect for tournaments is approximately 0.8 strokes. The adverse superstar effect increases when Woods is playing well and disappears during Woods's weaker periods. There is no evidence that reduced performance is due to 'riskier' play."

Brown goes on to suggest that firms hiring a superstar employee or the best job candidate (at any level), so as to both increase company productivity and performance and increase internal competition, might (unless they take the superstar effect into account) actually end up with the worst possible outcome - employees who are both unhappy and unmotivated.

Apart from the de-motivating effect, the presence of a superstar may also lower the performance by increasing the anxiety and pressure among competitors who try too hard and in the process buckle to pressure. Sian Beilock and her researchers at the Human Performance Lab at University of Chicago (see this for a detailed list of similar studies) have found, again by analyzing golfers, a cascade of mental events that lead professional athletes to fall apart on the fairway. As Jonah Lerner summarizes Ms. Beilock's findings,

"Novices hit better putts when they consciously reflect on their actions. The more time they spend thinking about the putt, the more likely they are to avoid beginner's mistakes and sink the ball in the hole. A little experience, however, changes everything. After golfers have learned how to putt—once they have memorized the necessary movements—analyzing the stroke is a dangerous waste of time... for instance, that when experienced golfers are forced to think about their putts, they hit significantly worse shots. All those conscious thoughts erase their years of practice; the grace of talent disappears...

This is what happens when people 'choke'. Because the performers are nervous, they begin analyzing actions that are best performed on auto-pilot. When playing against Mr. Woods, for instance, golfers might start second guessing their drive, a skill they've honed through years of practice. Instead of elevating their game to compete with the superstar, his intimidating talent makes them think like a beginner. They regress before the crowd."

The "adverse superstar effect" works differently in team sports. In most team sports, the presence of a superstar in the opposing team diverts a disproportionately large amount of attention towards containing the superstar. In football, the mere presence of a Maradona on the field would virtually immobilize two or three players who would be specifically entrusted with the task of trailing and marking him out of the game. This would in turn open up more opportunities for the other players in the team to create scoring positions.

In more individualistic (or with greater role for one-to-one match-ups) team sports like cricket, the direct "adverse superstar effect" as documented by Jennifer Brown and Sian Beilock will manifest in the direct contest with the superstar player. The extent of mental disintegration of the opposing player due to the reputational effect of the superstar is a function of the perceived gap between him and the rest of the field. This perception, as Prof Brown finds out with the case of Tiger Woods, also varies with the actual performance or form of the superstar.

It is therefore very much possible that given his present devastating form in recent months and in the IPL, an already "superman" Sachin Tendulkar may be exercising an intimidatory effect on bowlers. The resultant decline in their performance when bowling to Sachin has surely contributed to making things easier for Sachin than would otherwise have been (or would have been fora normal player).

As an aside, among the various reputational things that contribute to choking, most often the sheer physical intimidation value exercised by the player which is derived from their physical size, intimidatory manner of carrying themselves on the field, and their off-field persona, also contributes significantly towards choking opponents. Here, unlike Viv Richards or Shane Warne or Malcom Marshall, Sachin Tendulkar may have one of the least intimidating physical persona. To that extent, does this mean that Sachin's skill-based reputational quotient exerts a much larger presence in the minds of his opponents than that of the other superstars?

Update 1 (28/9/2010)

Excellent article in Wired about choking ("thinking too much" or "paralysis through analysis"). Sian Beilock says that choking arises due to "conscious attention to normally automatized physical operations that destroys the athlete’s normal fluidity" - the micromanaged putt, the aimed pitch, the over-directed free throw. By consciously trying to direct a physical action that you’ve practiced until it’s automatic, you botch it. For polished athletes, the explicit monitoring of destroys performance.

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