Time, Pressure & the Impact on Greatness

By Carlos D. Gonzalez & Brian N. O’Donnell  |   Jul 6, 2021

A few years ago, two NBA teams competed in one of the most exciting basketball games many have had the opportunity to watch. This game had everything a basketball fan could ask for…lead changes, amazing athleticism and incredible highlights. But none of those things are the basis of this article. Instead, the focus is on a specific play – a moment in the game where time and pressure made one of the greatest athletes on the planet question his ability to complete his intended task. 

At an extremely intense point in the game there was a scoring difference of just one point, 117 to 118, with 12.2 seconds left on the clock. One of the most renowned players on the trailing team received an inbound pass and quickly made his way up the court. He made it to the first defensive player with 8 seconds left.  A pick was set. He maneuvered around the pick and saw an opportunity.

His teammates had spread the floor, opening a lane to the basket. All he had to do was get past the defender who was right in front of him, which he chose to do.  This was a task he had performed countless times in practice and other games, a reactive decision made within a fraction of a second, likely made at a subconscious level.

He euro-stepped—a basketball term for when a player picks up their dribble, takes a step in one direction and then quickly takes a step in a different direction to confuse a defender—in an attempt to get past the other player.  But the defender did not respond the way most defenders do, or the way this highly experienced player believed he would. When the euro-step works effectively, the defender will move laterally in the wrong direction, providing an opening for the offensive player. In this case, the defender anticipated the step, jumped and swiped at the ball from above. 

Why was this important? 

It is illustrative of the impact that time, pressure, and a defender’s unexpected reaction can have on outcomes, an impact which likely led to this highly successful player’s unsuccessful performance. In that very instant, that expert level player did not recognize what he was conditioned to see and therefore was unable to react accordingly.  What did not require attention or conscious decision-making a moment before suddenly demanded complete attention and conscious processing. The defender’s action, and the offensive player’s subsequent reaction, resulted in both a travel—another basketball term used to describe a player taking too many steps without dribbling—and missing a wide open lay-up.

In the aftermath of that missed opportunity, the ball handler certainly appeared to be disappointed with himself. He clasped his hands on top of his head and looked down, with an expression which appeared to convey disbelief or disappointment or both. 

Is it possible that he questioned himself after missing a simple shot?  This man had played the game at the highest level for years. He was conditioned by the best trainers in the business. He undoubtedly watched countless hours of game film and completed thousands of hours of walkthroughs and practices. Yet, at that moment, when it mattered most, his mind and body failed him.

How can that be possible? Was it a mistake? Did he react to the defense incorrectly?

The answer is much simpler: He is human and his decision was based on the information available to him in the moment while balancing the rules, his training, and the consequences of inaction in a time compressed event.

When it comes to human performance, time and pressure can negatively affect anyone, even someone with a resume as impressive as one of the best basketball players in history.  The truth is that we are all subject to the potential for time and pressure-driven error, although people tend to lose sight of this fact when they are unaware or misinformed about the mechanisms which drive human physical and mental performance.

We don’t judge NBA athletes, or any other professional athletes based on their ability to perform at perfect levels 100% of the time. We judge them on their ability to perform based on their human capabilities and their success-to-failure ratio as compared to others. That is why a professional athlete can miss 50% of their shots, fail to complete 40% of their passes, fail to get on base 70% of the time and still be considered elite.

Take the player who missed the lay-up for example.  He has averaged 74% from the free throw line throughout his career. That means he missed 26% of the time on an unimpeded attempt at making a basket from a stationary position. It does not make him any less of a player. It makes him human.

Michael Jordan summarized this point in a very inspiring way. He said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted in taking the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.” 

Now, let us analyze a different situation using the same prism. A 9-1-1 dispatcher received a call from a person who was trying to reach the police for help. He and his family were at a local park when they noticed someone making threats to shoot another person. “Please hurry!” the caller pleaded. 

The call was immediately relayed over dispatch and two officers were sent to the park to handle the situation. Officer Johnson was the closest in proximity, so he sped his way through traffic with lights and sirens in full effect. Moments later, dispatch received another call from a different person who reported the man was threatening to shoot people. And then a third and fourth call came in. The officers were relayed this information. Officer Johnson replied, “Thirty seconds away.” The officer arrived on scene where he was met by a frantic woman who had also called about the incident. “Officer! The man is over there! He keeps reaching inside his pocket and threatening to shoot someone!”

The officer saw the man she was referring to. He was walking over to a group of people and appeared to be threatening them. “Where’s my backup?” he asked dispatch.  “Two minutes away,” the other responding officer replied.  Officer Johnson realized he could not wait that long—people were screaming, scattering, and the man was still making threats and moving in a manner consistent with his intentions.

So Officer Johnson ran towards the man, unholstered his firearm and yelled “Sir! Stop! Stop! This is the Police Department. Let me see your hands! Let me see your hands!”

Instead of stopping and acknowledging the order, the man got closer to the group of people, all of whom froze in fear. Some of them hovered over their children to protect them. “Sir! Stop! Stop right there!” the officer exclaimed.

At that moment, the man looked at the officer, then back at the group and started to move faster. In that instant, the officer ran to put himself between the man and group of people and repeated, “Stop! Sir, stop!” Bystanders were yelling, and others were approaching to take a closer look at the situation. You could hear the sirens in the distance. Then, suddenly, the man stopped moving forward and reached his hand into his pocket. “Sir! Stop! Let me see your hands!” Still, the man did not comply. Instead, he continued to gesture and pull his hand back out when the officer fired his weapon. Three shots. The threatening man went down and people gasped.

“Shots fired! Shots fired!” the officer yelled over the radio. “I need an ambulance!”

Backup arrived, and people were taken to safety. The man who was shot was checked and treated by medical professionals. To everyone’s surprise, no gun was found. 

Was this a mistake? Did the officer react incorrectly?

This officer was tasked with making a critical decision in a life-threatening situation, in a shorter time frame than it takes to make a layup, with significantly more variables, and people’s lives— including his own—dependent on the correct decision. Moreover, he had never been involved in a shooting before.

He did not have unlimited resources, which means he also did not have the best training and conditioning available. He feared for his life and for the lives of others, and his decision was that of a human being using the information available to him in the moment while balancing the law, his training, and the consequences of inaction in a time compressed event. 

To err is human and police officers are humans, too. They face unknown challenges and choose to serve and protect for the higher good, and yet they do not receive the quantity or quality of training that professional athletes receive. In addition to having fewer resources, they are asked to handle far more complex and dangerous situations at the risk of their very lives and those of others’ and are granted no margin for error. They do not get to fail. Still, they suit up and face whatever horrors the day may bring, despite being perceived as ill-intended people and/or being second guessed by others who have very little knowledge, are misinformed, or who are being influenced by others’ inaccurate generalizations. 

If we took the time to apply the same, humanistic perspectives we use to empathize with non-law enforcement people, we would be having a very different conversation about law enforcement today. Unfortunately, many people stop assessing or analyzing a situation once they have information which aligns with their belief systems surrounding the dynamics of police encounters. This is how crowds can be moved to action, only to discover that once they get a little more information, they realize that their initial conclusion was incorrect. This predisposition could come from the psychological relief obtained once an acceptable reason has been identified, or when that reason is politically expedient, or simply when a person does not want to spend their time assessing the situation for themselves and instead decide to adopt the perspective of someone else who confirms their own preconceived beliefs.  

Coaches, teammates and fans gave the player who botched that lay-up an opportunity to prove that this one regrettable performance was not the sum of his abilities or value to the team.  With three seconds left, the opposing team made two foul shots to go up by three. The ball was given to the inbound passer who made an amazing pass to the player in question who then hit a turn-around, fade-away, three-point shot to tie the game, which his team went on to win in overtime. What a victory! What an incredible game and incredible opportunity to showcase his abilities and receive well deserved admiration as one of the game’s greatest players.  How different would it be if the fans, coaches, and media focused solely on his missing a game-winning shot, or a game-costing turnover?  With percentages working against them, professional athletes would fall well short of greatness. Indeed, if all that was ever broadcast was an elite player’s failures, the public would perceive them as unfit to play professionally. 

It is time that our community heroes – police officers – are afforded the same level of understanding and be given a platform which highlights acts of greatness in their communities, not just the poor outcomes.  Much like professional athletes need their supporters, police officers need their communities, their political leaders, and the media to support them and provide them an opportunity to show their greatness, too.

Speaking on behalf of law enforcement, we are waiting for the inbound pass.