How to Cure L.A. Laker Dwight Howard’s Stage Fright

Anyone Can Get Caught In a Bad Cognitive Loop. Mojo Is the Ticket Out.

Does Dwight Howard have stage fright?

Howard, who stands 6’10”, is one of the most successful basketball players of this era. This season, he will make $19 million playing center for the Los Angeles Lakers. But, to the consternation of much of Southern California, he keeps missing the easiest shot in basketball, the free throw. Howard has never had a high free-throw percentage, but this season, he is missing half of his free throws, a level that has contributed to several Laker losses. His failures are a puzzle to teammates, who say his average is better than 70 percent in practice.

Why is this happening? If Howard’s free-throw average really is higher during practice, then the cause of his failures is as simple as it is intractable: fear.

Performance anxiety, also known as stage fright, is one of life’s most common psychological disorders. At its core is the fear of the judgment of others, and the engine powering that fear is our imagination. The more insecure we are, the more our imagination starts dreaming up worst-case scenarios. For example: “If I crack on the high note, then I’ll be reamed by the press, and I’ll be fired by my opera company, then no opera company will hire me again, my wife will leave me and take the house, then I’ll end up living out of a shopping cart, singing show tunes for tips outside a McDonald’s.”

Not all performance stress is bad, of course. A little stress can be exciting, like the stress you feel on a ride at an amusement park, and moderate stress can improve the speed of some simple tasks. Even the ability to dream up worst-case scenarios is a survival mechanism crucial to human evolution. The risk of apocalyptic imagination, however, is that we trick the limbic system into believing we’re facing real physical danger when we’re not, and cortisol and adrenaline start flooding through our bodies. This is great if we’re in a condition of fight or flight, but when we’re performing tasks that require a lot of concentration or the use of fine motor skills, excessive stress can drastically harm the performance. It interferes with fine skeletomotor control, and it also harms cognitive ability in the form of distracting “what if” thoughts unrelated to the task at hand.

So, what elements of the game, not present during practice, are causing Dwight Howard’s stress? There are four possible answers. Let’s take a look at each one:

Possibility #1: the response of the stadium and broadcast audience.

I once asked the Olympic diver Greg Louganis if during his final winning dive he thought of the audience. “Oh no,” he told me, with a laugh. “By that time you’re way past that.” Most professional athletes are far too intent on their own performance to be very aware of the crowd. Pleasing an audience is nice, but it doesn’t determine a ballplayer’s salary nearly as much as ability. So possibility #1 is not likely.

Possibility #2: the behavior of the opposing team.

An opposing team is not present during practice, when Howard has better performance, but, while an opposing team can hypothetically interfere with a player’s skills, free throws don’t allow for any overt physical interference. Mental interference coming from the opposing team during free throws would be a stretch. We can surely rule out possibility #2 as well.

Possibility #3: the potential loss of salary.

We can’t get around the fact that performance during a game affects the salary of a professional athlete. A player’s performance will determine his economic future and all the things that go along with it. Imagining the loss of one’s future could undeniably be one source of Howard’s anxiety.

Possibility #4: emotional instability owing to the loss of self-image. 

Our self-image is the foundation upon which we base a lot of our actions. If it changes, we’re thrown into a form of purgatory known as cognitive dissonance. Imagine working at a skill your whole life, sacrificing everything to achieve it, and then relying on it for everything you have. It can make you a millionaire, but it can also make you a pauper. Building identity on one skill is like building a house on top of a telephone pole. When that pole starts to tilt, you can guarantee fear will be involved.

I expect the source of Howard’s woes are to be found in possibilities three and four, which are intertwined. That sense is strengthened by Howard’s own words. “My mind cannot get clouded with everybody telling me how to shoot a free throw,” he told an interviewer in early December. “I just have to go up there and shoot it my way and not get caught up in what everybody else is saying, because that’s when I miss.”

Here we see that Howard feels an acute sense of threat. He admits his mind has often been clouded. And he believes that changing his technique now will cause further damage. Howard’s proposed solution is something he can’t define technically, because he didn’t acquire it technically. In the opinion of Kobe Bryant, Howard is one of many players who had no real fundamental training, and technical retraining is the answer.

I suspect Kobe, for all his phenomenal skills, is wrong. That’s because making free throws, like any other physical skill, involves many small individual movements. Once a series of motor movements or activities becomes automatic they can be chunked together into a unit and be thought of as one single activity or movement. The free throw. Chunking reduces mental effort because you’re thinking of one thing instead of many. Howard got used to experiencing free throws as a chunked movement. Most any skilled performer will suffer a drop in performance if he or she is required to deconstruct chunked motor skills. This explains the riddle, “What do you do to make a great golfer ruin his swing?” Answer: “Ask him to explain it.” Perhaps retraining over the long run would help Howard, but it’s not his immediate salvation.

To compound his woes, Howard may also be caught in a cognitive loop, a crippling condition that can affect any area of human performance. In this loop, you worry about whether your performance is good enough, change it, worry about what you’ve changed, change your performance again, worry about the new change you made—and on and on. It uses up so much mental processing that nothing’s left to play the actual game. And the less confident players are about their skills, the more likely they are to get sucked into that cognitive whirlpool.

What I’ve found in my research is that the only reliable antidote to stage fright is confidence. In a study conducted in 2011 on stage fright in elite professional actors, I found out just how pivotal the feeling of confidence can be in changing the interpretation of stress. During high levels of confidence, most stress gets translated into excitement (good). During low levels of confidence, even moderate stress can be translated into threat (bad). When a player is confident, he or she is like a trampoline with plenty of elasticity, rebounding in spite of changes in the game or slight dips in performance. Without confidence, a player is like a trampoline that loses a spring with every blunder, causing the fabric to give way.

So how does Mr. Howard get back that confidence—or mojo? In a nutshell: His Way.

My suggestion is to add distraction to his practice sessions at the free-throw line. Have other team members do all they can to distract him. Make it surpass what he might experience in a real game until external distraction draws attention away from the distraction that’s going on in his head. Make this a regular part of his practice until nothing bothers him. During the off-season, he can start defining what he’s doing so that he never loses his mojo again—and so that Southern Californians can worry about other serious local problems, like Steve Nash’s defense.

Dr. Gordon Goodman is a media and entertainment psychologist and an expert on stage fright and performance. He lives in Los Angeles where he is a consultant on performance issues and creativity in the arts.
Primary Editor: Joe Mathews. Secondary Editor: T.A. Frank.
*Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman.
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