Forget Richard III. This is the winter of my discontent, and it isn’t just the unrelenting cold, snow and ice in the Northeast. (It’s like “Dr. Zhivago” without Omar Sharif.)
No, it’s partly because my guys – Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Colin Kaepernick, Gov. Chris Christie and now Peyton Manning – have all fallen short this season. (Thank God Tim Tebow has found his calling as a T. Mobile pitchman and ESPN analyst, or this winter would be a total bust.)
Let’s leave off Gov. Krispy Kreme, shall we? Remember how in math you always had to pick out the one thing that didn’t belong to the set. Well, he doesn’t belong to the set. His is a different kind of performance to be judged by other criteria. What I want to talk about today in the aftermath of that dud of a Super Bowl and with the Olympics beginning Thursday, Feb. 6 with the new team ice figure skating event is why some people – brilliantly talented everyday achievers – fall flat in big moments.
You certainly can make a case for destiny, that each of us is a strand in the universe and that what we perceive to be a good or bad performance, good or bad luck, is nothing more than each of us fulfilling his strand. Certainly, the tennis players and swimmers in my new novel “Water Music” and the football player at the center of my upcoming novel, “In This Place You Hold Me” – part of “The Games Men Play” series – believe in destiny. But they also play as if they can make their own.
You can also make a case for injury (Rafa in the Australian Open final), the notion that nobody wins forever (How many matches had Nole won in a row before losing in the quarterfinals there?) or a superior opponent. (Hey, maybe the Seattle Seahawks were just plain better than the San Francisco 49ers, who at least gave them a run for their money, and the Denver Broncos, who certainly didn’t.)
But none of this really explains Peyton Manning’s performance in the Super Bowl, does it – a man so famous for his preparations undone from the very beginning by a rookie mistake from which he and the team never recovered. Nor does it explain why a perennial regular-season MVP has a losing post-season record or why the kid brother who is considered a less talented signal caller, Eli, is 2-for-2 in Super Bowl championships while he is 1 for 3. Watching Peyton and the Broncos lose to the happier-go-lucky Russell Wilson and the Seahawks reminded me of all those heartbreaking years watching Michelle Kwan – perennial world champion figure skater – lose Olympic gold to teenagers (first Tara Lipinski, then Sarah Hughes).
Why? Everyone in the workaday world remembers the studious classmate who got straight As but could never ace a state test, the colleague who’s a terrific worker but shrinks during the Power Point presentation. Maybe you’ve even asked yourself: When the chips are down or the curtain up, am I Alex Rodriguez (all parade, no battle) or Derek Jeter (presumably less gifted yet Mr. Clutch)?
I think the answer lies somewhere in a perfectionism that is a strength day-to-day but a weakness in a crisis or a big moment. Over the course of a regular season or a less significant event, there’s less pressure, because there’s always another game or event of equal magnitude. Time and space seem to expand, crucial for the perfectionist who needs lots of time and space to make sure everything is, well, perfect.
But in an all-or-nothing moment, time and space contract. You may not trust your preparation and start overthinking. Or the preparation may not be enough as you’re forced to improvise. And if you can’t turn Plan B – or C or D – on a dime like an Alexander the Great (who learned this from his teacher Aristotle), you’re sunk.
On Super Bowl Sunday, Peyton looked rushed, rattled. The crowd noise in neutral MetLife got to him. A controlled person like Kwan, he responded to the loss of control by playing slow and tight, playing with something to lose.
Instead of playing fast and loose – for something to win.