Image via Fourth Grade Nothing
Image via Fourth Grade Nothing
Take a typical high school halfback. Walks around the halls with his chest out, fancies himself a bit of a badass. On gameday, he feels fleet, agile, cocky. The play comes in from the sideline—running play, up the gut—and as the huddle breaks, he’s putting a poker face while mentally prepping to become a human cannonball. Then, something unsettling. The linebacker in the slot. He’s—wait, he’s sobbing. Not out of fear, or pain, or shame. It’s more of a smiling, loopy, just-got-engaged kind of sobbing. He’s so geeked to knock the shit out of someone that he’s actually weeping with joy. Our typical high school halfback has probably just turned into a prey species against this very atypical linebacker. How the hell is someone supposed to want it worse than a guy who cries during the snap count?
This (real) scenario arises as I’m talking with Arnold LeUnes about the most intimidating athletes we’ve ever seen. LeUnes is a professor at Texas A&M who has studied sports psychology for 30 years. I’ve lobbed up the idea that good athletes, the best athletes, consciously or un-, wage a bit of psychological warfare. “There’s very little formal research on the concept,” LeUnes tells me, which is a liberating thing to hear from a social scientist, and perhaps for the social scientist himself to say. So the professor gives me his non-peer-reviewed list of most intimidating jocks.
At the top is an athlete who shares a name with a jungle cat and with the blunt objects of his craft. “Tiger Woods, for years when he entered a tournament it was him and the other 71 guys,” LeUnes says. “I’ve never seen anybody in my life who was more intimidating.” On this, the existing research bears him out. Jennifer Brown, a prof at Kellogg, has found that Woods’ presence led his opponents to each take an extra 0.8 strokes apiece per tournament from 1999 to 2006. Next on LeUnes’ list, Michael Jordan. The ’70s-era NFL also struck the professor as a heyday of intimidators, from the Oakland Raiders’ black-and-silver to defensive backs with nicknames like Dr. Death and the Hitter. “They would sacrifice a nice, clean tackle if they can make a semi-dirty hit,” LeUnes says.
Then there’s the middle linebacker LeUnes played against in high school who frankly makes Tiger and M.J. look like pikers. The kid later went on to play in the NFL, serve in Vietnam, and become an athletics director at a small religious college—an upstanding citizen. But as a teenager, his emotions were utterly unnerving. “Before every snap,” LeUnes says, “he would start crying, because he wanted to hit somebody so bad. Tears would just run down his eyes. He was a great guy—off the field he was a pussycat—but on the field he was a maniac.”
Take two athletes. Good ones, real specimens. Been told their whole lives how awesome they are, how capable. Accordingly, they’ve built themselves to be fast and strong and agile. Both hoard these homilies to ward off doubt, that bespectacled cousin of fear.
Now pit them against one another, this batter and pitcher, this receiver and cornerback, this goalie and forward, or these bantamweights. Both can bang against sturdy bones, strain against layered muscle, race beside the other’s flipbook feet. But let’s say one can reach into that soft place where the other keeps all that happy horseshit people fed him over the years, his mojo, his metaphorical heart. He can rip it out and squoosh it in your palms like a cherry cordial. Why, then the aggressor can do pretty much whatever he wants.
For such a powerful force in sport, it’s downright bizarre we don’t have a word for what’s happening there. We use cludgy terms like “psyched out” or “got inside his head.” But we don’t have a term for this state of social, rather than physical, trumping; the anti-“zone.”
Joseph Heller, of all people, found a word for it in 1974’s Something Happened, the follow-up to Catch-22. The main character, a New York mid-level sort named Slocum, narrates his borderline miserable marriage and his job at a corporate hive supposedly patterned after Time Inc. Like Heller, Slocum is an aging World War II veteran; he’s constantly confronting the emasculation of domestic and office politics. In particular, he dwells on the relationships of subtle domination that spring up in his workplace. He calls this phenomenon “the whammy”, and immediately declares it “lifelong.”
Here’s Slocum talking about his boss, even as he’s on the verge of being offered a promotion:
Arthur Baron sits alone at his desk and greets me with a smile. He rises and comes forward slowly to shake my hand. He is always very cordial to me (and everyone) and always very gentle and considerate. Yet I am always afraid of him. He's got the whammy on me, I guess (just as everyone I've ever worked for in my whole life has had the whammy on me), and I guess he always will.
Slocum’s whammies are largely conferred by position; he defers to his superiors, locks up in the face of perceived social threats. Yet even when the titles change, he finds himself obeying that first law, namely that whammies are lifelong.
And Green still has the whammy on me! I can stomp all over him, spit in his eye, beat him down into nervous collapse, send him, clutching his bowels, into a hospital bed with his spastic colitis; I am younger, stronger, bigger, and in better health than he is and can punch him in the jaw as easily as Johnny Brown can give me my punch in the jaw—and he still has the whammy on me. I am still afraid of him and perspiring copiously under the arms again.
There’s no mortal threat involved in this whammy. It’s soft power, hard to overcome, and ingrained in our genes. Social animals organize. Bighorn rams missile themselves at one another’s skulls to find the alpha. Beta chimps bow to their betters. This is the way of the world. Men go to war and then come home to find that size and strength still can’t keep their armpits from sweating when another male says he won’t listen. There’s something primal at work here, and if there’s anything sports do worth a damn, it’s giving us a porthole onto our suppressed primates.
Contests decided by small margins may go to the swift or to the strong or to the cunning—but as we quantify sports, we risk losing sight of the simple fact that many people lose in part because they believe they will. Having the whammy on someone allows you to beat them not by beating them, but by inspiring them to beat themselves simply by dint of who you are. When Tiger Woods said, “Every time I play, in my own mind I’m the favorite,” he wasn’t being a jerk; if anything, he restricted his statement unnecessarily to his own mind.
Bill Russell had the whammy on Wilt. The Yankees had it on the Red Sox from 1919 until 2004. Other players are one-man whammies. Lawrence Taylor. Martin Brodeur. Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan in their heydays. Jerry Rice. Mike Tyson. Poker players thrive on whammy. Red Auerbach lighting his cigar before games were quite decided was not, itself, the whammy. But if the Celtics who won nine titles under him inspired whammy, that ritual was certainly elemental. What’s the message to opposing players if not You can quit trying, now.
Writing for Deadspin earlier this year, Nate Jackson, a former NFL tight end, explained going through a training camp in which Terrell Owens made it a point to break cornerbacks with his size and physical strength. That sort of thing, as much as his 16,000+ career yards and 1,000+ receptions, is why a player like Terrell Owens becomes Terrell Owens.
Once you develop the reputation as a badass in the NFL, it becomes easier to be that badass, because everyone thinks you are that badass and subconsciously they tighten up and prepare themselves to fail when they face you. The same phenomenon existed around Randy Moss. He was so good as a rookie and made so many veteran NFL players and coaches look foolish that for the rest of his career, people were backing off of him and stumbling all over themselves when the ball was in the air. It doesn't hurt when you run like a gazelle and have great hands. But the reputation goes a long, long way.
Reputation is the quintessence of whammy. It is weightless, intangible, invisible and strictly in the mind of the beholder. And yet it is one of the greatest tools in the arsenal of a Hall of Fame-caliber receiver.
When I covered bass fishing, I remember hearing about a whammyesque move by Kevin VanDam, the best angler presently and in the history of the sport. He was fishing around a point from one of his competitors, out of sight. At one point, without having caught anything, he turned to his gallery of spectator boats (the on-water equivalent of a golfer’s gallery) and lifted his arms to draw the cheers. Anyone within earshot would’ve thought VanDam was catching the shit out of ’em. And of course the reason VanDam could even pull that stunt, and manipulate his fans to help him demoralize the competition, is because people follow him around, expecting him to catch the shit out of ’em. Reputation goes a long, long way.
In the 1950s an Ohio State psychology named Julian B. Rotter introduced the idea of internal and external loci. People who exhibit a strong internal locus view themselves as the drivers of their destinies, and tend to be, on balance, optimistic sorts. People with a more external locus believe that other people or outside forces influence their lives, and they’re more likely to be pessimistic, more prone to depression. The degree to which a person orients around an internal or external locus of control became a measurable variable, like so many other personality traits. In the 1960s Hannah Levenson at Texas A&M separated the definition of external forces to include “powerful others” and “luck,” giving deeper detail to the external locus orientation. In the 1970s, Michael Tutko and Bruce Ogilvie, professors at San Jose State, were written up in Sports Illustrated for their efforts to apply psychological tests to maximizing talent at all levels of athletics, which often meant prescribing different coaching approaches for different athletes. They found overwhelmingly that upper-echelon athletes and coaches exhibit high drives for success and strong personalities: In other words, they are hard to sway.
We’re all human, though, and we’re all subject to a phenomenon first formally observed in the ’50s and ’60s called “learned helplessness.” This tracks about like it sounds: when humans and animals stop struggling and act helpless in a situation when their efforts could in fact determine an outcome. This seems to be borderline Pavlovian—that once you prove to a person or a dog that he cannot change his circumstances, the acceptance of that fact endures even when the situation might later change.
In 1990, a University of Pennsylvania professor named Martin E. P. Seligman (among the pioneers in studying learned helplessness) along with three other researchers applied the optimistic/pessimistic split directly to athletic performance, with elite college swimmers. They enlisted the men’s and women’s swim teams at the University of California to swim their best individual events. The researchers then inflated the times they reported to the swimmers—about one second per hundred meters—in order to be both undetectable and “to produce serious disappointment.” The researchers felt justified in that no swimmers voiced suspicion and several looked “disheartened” and “dejected” with their scores. Thus demoralized, the swimmers had a break of about a half-hour, then swam the event again. In that second event, swimmers who had exhibited a pessimistic explanatory style fared worse than those who had optimistic explanatory styles. The pessimists swam below expectations, and they swam slower than the optimists. In other words, when subtly screwed over, the optimistic athletes persevered.
With that knowledge, wouldn’t you rather swim against a pessimist? Or at least someone whose optimism was on the fritz?
In hindsight, so much of coaching seems aimed at getting athletes not to learn helplessnes. Every great upset in history shows the fruits of that refusal, which is at the heart of avoiding the whammy, and coaches nod to the whammy in absentia, when they say “we didn’t quit out there” and when they say “we got the monkey off our backs.” The result is that 90 percent of coaching is contra-whammy, trying to undermine doubt and instill bulletproof swagger. (The other 10 percent is partially coaches who do nothing but exert petty whammy-advantage over their players. LeUnes recalls an old A&M coach who treated his subordinates thusly and lost consistently. The coach’s successor remarked, upon taking over the program, that he’d never before seen such a collection of whipped dogs.) Quoth Mark Twain: “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions.” The whammy corollary: Belittle your opponents’ ambitions.
Confidence is the anti-whammy. Whereas whammy inspires you not to bother, confidence is that quality that doesn’t care that you shouldn’t bother.
Perhaps now that we’ve identified the phenomenon, science will throw some money into studying the whammy proper. Until then, we can nibble at the existing research. Oddly, it suggests that the natural whammymakers of the world aren’t necessarily creeps. Far from.
Along with A&M colleague Tony Bourgeois and Michael Meyers at Montana State, LeUnes has studied, dozens of times, the motivation to achieve success, avoid failure and attain power. According to their results, athletes are all motivated to achieve success, but that some compete primarily in order to avoid failure. “What we have found over and over and over,” LeUnes says to me, “this motivation to achieve power constantly stands out in our work as a variable that predicts success.”
It sounds negative, he admits. But that desire for power is also correlated highly with what you’d regard as positive psychological orientation: an internal locus of control, positive dimensions of the mood states. “We’ve concluded it’s sort of an in-your-face thing that’s not negative at all,” he says.
This is not a tremendous shocker, really, to learn that people who are motivated by power are also those who wind up achieving it. But what is power if not the ability to control other people? Pushing them is work; better that they move aside on their own. Convince a man to do that, and you’ve got yourself a relationship that usually lasts a lifetime.