Why Superstars Dominate Sports

The super-human abilities of sports superstars like Roger Federer and Tiger Woods are self-fulfilling prophecies, says Jonah Lehrer. Because of their status, their opponents choke. 

What's the Latest Development?


It seems Roger Federer and Tiger Woods have begun the slow, humbling fade that sports superstars inevitably learn about in time. The explanation for their previous, practically unheard-of success is part physical and part mental, says Jonah Lehrer. What is called "the superstar effect" gives some superior athletes a big mental edge in competition. Why? Some opponents see defeat as a foregone conclusion so do not commit themselves to the game while others, overly anxious about performing well, commit mistakes they otherwise wouldn't.

What's the Big Idea?

While sport is typically thought of as a competition between the physical abilities of athletes, any casual observer has noticed the importance of mental toughness as well. It seems especially difficult for opponents to overcome the superstar effect and this, more than a sheer physical advantage, helps to explain why some athletes tower over their competitors during the height of their careers. When their powers begin to diminish, however, their competitors feel revived and begin to believe they can rise to the challenge. They often do and our sports heroes learn a lesson in humility. 

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