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Steve McLendon and the Effects of Performance Anxiety

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During one of the "Live at 4" streams from this past week, Tunch Ilkin discussed Steve McLendon taking over for Chris Hoke last week. He talked to Steve after the game, and Steve described his almost overwhelming case of nerves on taking the field and how the other guys talked him down. Tunch said that he remembered the feeling well, and that one of the dangers is actually hyperventilating. McLendon's ability to deal with these very natural nerves could prove to be something of a wild card in tomorrow's game.

There is no doubt that different people handle performance anxiety differently. The classic and very unfortunate case for the Steelers would appear to be Limas Sweed. He had all the tools he needed to be a terrific wide receiver, except that he lacked sufficient confidence in his abilities. (It didn't help that he couldn't stay healthy, but that's a different discussion.) His inability to catch the ball reliably was almost certainly caused by anxiety. He almost never missed a quick throw that he wasn't really expecting. On the other hand, a long ball that he knew was coming to him gave him sufficient time to think about it, and generally seemed to result in a drop.

The big question for tomorrow is not whether Steve McLendon will be nervous, but how well he will handle it.

One of the greatest men I've ever known, my organ teacher during my first years of undergraduate school, used to say two things about nerves.

The first was that nerves cause you to lose about six weeks worth of preparation. (The clear message, and one that I never quite managed to implement, is that one should have the program at an acceptable performance level six weeks before the date of the actual performance.) The second was that excessive nervousness was the result of wanting to perform better than you know you deserve to.

In my many years of performing since those days, I have come to realize the great wisdom in his words. The more experienced you are, the less time you "lose," as it were. Instead of six weeks, it might be more like a week at this point. But there is still a loss.

The second factor is not the whole story, but it is definitely part of the equation. Whether one is approaching a tricky passage of Bach or trying to remember one of the many post-snap possibilities, I suspect that there is always that moment where one thinks "Oh yeah, I should have looked at that passage/page in the playbook a few more times."

My teacher was ahead of his time. Miguel Humara, the author of this article on treating performance anxiety, looked at the results of a number of studies on the subject. One of his conclusions was that "cognitive anxiety was best predicted by an evaluation of previous performances, individual's perception of preparedness, and goal setting."  

This indicates that McLendon's mental state tomorrow will depend in large part on how prepared he feels, how well he thinks he performed last Sunday, and whether he has reasonable expectations of what he wants to accomplish vs. the Cardinals.  The latter factor might indicate that "the standard is the standard" is on some level counterproductive. Unfortunately, it's a necessary mindset.

One of the factors that the author noted in the degree of performance anxiety was whether the participant was in a team or an individual sport. Not too surprisingly, he found that anxiety was more marked in those participating in individual sports: "Research conducted comparing athletes competing in team sports (basketball) with those competing in individual sports (track and field) has found that subjects competing in individual sports report significantly lower self-confidence and higher somatic anxiety than team sport athletes." 

Fortunately for Steve, he is not only in a team sport, but unlike, say, a receiver running to catch a ball clearly thrown to him, few fans are focused on defensive line play. Being able to diffuse the responsibility lessens the anxiety.

Another factor detailed in the paper was the effect of self-confidence. "Self-confidence has been found to account for a greater proportion of variance in performance than cognitive or somatic anxiety...This suggests that the most powerful quality that elite performers posses is a high level of self-confidence which may act as a protective factor from cognitive anxiety." 

Of course there is a certain chicken-and-egg quality to that statement, as a higher level of training and preparation will generally lead to greater level of self-confidence. It definitely plays into McLendon's perception of his performance last week. But self-confidence isn't always tied to measurable levels of accomplishment.

For better or worse, people who have grown up with a sense that they are gifted at a certain activity are likely to feel more naturally confident about their prowess. The talent level between the players that make it into the NFL is, as I have argued elsewhere, extremely small. But part of the "talent" of the elite in the league, and part of what separates them from the rest, is probably a higher level of confidence in their own abilities. Antonio Brown believes he can catch anything thrown at him, although that clearly isn't entirely true. But  every ball Limas Sweed dropped lessened his confidence in his abilities, even though his basic measurables—size, speed, and so on—were obviously not affected by the outcome of any single throw.

I think that you could do an absolutely fascinating study about the affect of being a late-round pick or UDFA, and whether the culture on the team that drafts them has a strong role in determining their eventual chance of success.

It wouldn't surprise me in the least to find that the Steelers have a greater-than-normal degree of success with players in this category. It also would not astonish me to find that their culture of player development not just on the part of the coaching staff but by the other players in that position plays an enormous role in this.

The comparison of second-round pick Limas Sweed and sixth-round pick Antonio Brown illustrates that it isn't the whole story. But for most people at least part of their self-image is generated by their perception of what others think of them. I would assume that it could be fairly shattering to your self-image to find yourself drafted well below the level you consider yourself to be on, or, worse yet, not at all.

To return to the UDFA currently under consideration, there are a couple more factors to consider about how McLendon is likely to react in tomorrow's game. To quote the above-cited paper once again, "Among males, cognitive and somatic anxiety was more strongly affected by their perception of [the] opponent's ability and probability of winning."  The other factor is the actual location of the contest: "away games resulted in increased somatic anxiety and lower self-confidence."

So here's hoping that last week's baptism by fire gave Steve McLendon a good dose of self-confidence, and that he perceives the Cardinals as eminently beatable, despite going to their house to do it. It is probably fair to say that his performance will depend on how well he deals with his anxiety almost as much as it does on his preparation to this point. It may also at least partially determine whether he is given a shot at being the Steelers' NT of the future or whether remains a useful but unheralded backup.