A Prominent Sports Psychologist Talks Paul George and Performance Anxiety

Paul George’s playoff woes have been documented for years. Despite averaging 20 points in his 81 playoff games, many questioned the Los Angeles Clippers guard’s lack of success and whether he could perform at the highest level. 

Last Tuesday, the six-time All-Star silenced many of his critics with his 35-point in a Game 5 win against the Dallas Mavericks. But George also spoke about his performance anxiety and how much it affected him during the Clippers' last three playoff games. 

TSFJ reached out to Dr. Bhrett McCabe, a sports psychologist to learn more about performance anxiety, what may cause it, and how to work with athletes and their mental health. McCabe is the consulting psychologist at the University of Alabama, and he has also worked with PGA and LPGA champions. He is also a two-time NCAA champion from his days with LSU baseball. 

TSFJ: Often you hear guys have issues performing under the lights. George spoke about the lack of fans and how it threw his game off. Why do you think that is?

McCabe: Rory McIlroy talked about it in the PGA Tour, Tiger (Woods) spoke about it as not being as inspired, usually with your fans. Whether they’re your home fans or visiting fans, they give you an artificial boost of energy. When you don’t have it, you have to summon that a little more internally and it’s harder and difficult.

A lot of athletes would talk about the highs and lows of the peaks and valleys. What they’re having now is a little more of the flat line effect, they’re playing the game but they don’t have that artificial noise or boost from the crowd and it could be wearing on them.

TSFJ: Before his slump in the playoffs, George averaged 20 PPG in the seeding games and even scored 27 in the opening playoff game. What do you think could trigger that sort of slump or performance anxiety?

McCabe: One thing you got to look at is, sometimes we have that boost naturally going out with friends. We get that boost going out for the weekend, that naturally happens like, 'Yes it’s the weekend and we’re going to do some stuff'. Sunday night comes and we have those thoughts like ‘I got to get back to work’ or whatever. Those are kind of natural. He probably had to work a little extra to get those outcomes and what we have to understand is success and performance is not a flat line growth curve.

He may have been more open to share his thoughts and feelings when he was a little on the downside, when he was rawer. Players can perform on any level despite how they feel but it takes a more mature, seasoned vet to understand how to tap into that level of performance without feeling well.


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TSFJ: Earlier in his career, he’s seen a lot of playoff success, but prior to the Clippers' series win this weekend, his teams have bounced in the first round each of the last four years. Do you think that starts to play a part in his performance?

McCabe: 100 percent and it’s got to. The hard part is that you have to compete with is that there are a lot of things out of your control in a playoff environment. It’s more chaotic, if you continue to see the same trends, you start to believe that trends are prophetic or predicted by you. It’s kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy. What happens in those situations is that athletes try to do more and give more effort, try to take more shots and struggle and as a result, we circle back around again.

The best thing to do is to look from a percentages standpoint. Obviously, he’s one of the elite players, his teammates have to also perform at an elite level and learn to play in the playoffs environment and stick with this process in the game plan from start to finish. Not feeling like you have to do more, just feeling like you have to do less but just do it better.

TSFJ: Does the nickname Playoff P help?

McCabe: I think that any time we bring the energy to ourselves, it doesn’t help us do our step-by-step approach or process, we’re just creating increased drama. If (Baseball Hall of Famer) Reggie Jackson slumps off in October they’re like, 'I thought you were Mr. October.' Well, Mr. October was off his past performance.

I remember I worked with a golfer who was a major champion, who said champions don’t make those mistakes. Playoff P was off past behavior; every opportunity creates a new one. All we do is give our fans and critics a chance to be in our ear more. The worst thing is to raise the game of, don’t give any more attention to things that are out of my control.


TSFJ: If you had the chance to work with Paul George, what would be the advice you would give him?

McCabe: Just quiet the noise down. Let’s reduce the noise and distractions. What are the two or things that we need to go out there and perform in our best way? In the highest pressure moments, you do the little things better than everybody else. We focus on the big shiny stuff, the best of the best, do the little things right. Let’s take the energy out on the court, let’s make sure we hit the floor, attack the rim, and make hard cuts. Let’s hustle for loose balls, let’s focus on the factors that are under our control. The rest of the game will play itself out. They’re well trained for a reason, they’re good at what they do for a reason. We don’t need to put any extra attention there, let’s use the game and the flow of the game to get the players back into their confidence level.”

TSFJ: How can sports get better in addressing mental health issues?

McCabe: We as coaches need to be aware of the individual experience of each person that we’re coaching and leading. Don’t assume that because they can score 50 points or hit 38 home runs that they’re mental health and wellness is perfect too. Don’t judge another person’s journey because we’re never walking in their shoes.

A lot of athletes that I work with have a lot of pressure. The only reason they have this pressure is because they’re really good at what they do. We don’t spend a lot of time with people when they’re struggling at the bottom of the mountain, we tend to highlight the people struggling at the top of the mountain. So we need to understand and give some sympathy and understanding to people that are competing. That goes for every profession, that goes to the best writers, the best surgeons, the best accountants. The more burden and pressure taken on, the more risk and volatile and we have to be prepared for that.

We can’t assume that because they do one thing in their life exceptionally well, that every aspect of their life is engrained and perfect.

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