Apart from his proven skills, Jeremy Lin, the remarkable young point guard for the New York Knicks, is benefiting from a combination of psychological factors that have conspired to help him obtain dizzying success on the court.
Since he came off the bench earlier this month, Lin has scored 136 points in his first five games with the Knicks, more than anybody since the NBA and ABA merged back in 1976. He’s also helped his struggling team put together a seven-game winning streak that has the whole city talking about the Knicks in the playoffs.
Experts who study sports psychology say Lin has performed another remarkable feat -- blocking out outside pressures to allow his athletic skills to shine.
“How we think about whether we are going to succeed or fail changes whether or not our brain supports our skills,” said Sian Beilock, author of the book "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To" and a psychology professor at the University of Chicago.
“Focusing on what you want to achieve rather than why you’ve failed in the past prepares you to perform at your best. When you are focused on failing, often times you try to control every aspect of what you are doing. You essentially screw yourself up.”
Beilock says Lin has capitalized on the low expectations that were initially set for him. Passed over by major college programs, Lin played at Harvard, where he majored in economics.
Ignored by pro scouts after graduation in 2010, Lin played in the NBA’s developmental league in places like Reno, Nevada, and Erie, Penn. He played briefly for the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets, but was cut in December 2011. During this year’s strike-shortened season, Lin was called up by the Knicks and was about to be cut again when his coach gave him a chance to play. Since then, he’s become both a team leader and a big city superstar.
Lin is a devout Christian who credits God for his success. Whether or not God is responsible for Lin’s astounding point totals, his faith is another factor in keeping him stable, Beilock said.
“A lot of my work about why athletes tend to fail is that they start to deconstruct what’s happening during performances,” Beilock said. “It’s paralysis by analysis. But if you believe it’s being dictated by a higher power, it opens up the ability to just go with it. He can just relax and play.”
Lin may also have great powers of concentration both on and off the court, according to Christopher Janelle, director of the University of Florida’s performance psychology laboratory.
“He is able to pay attention to the right things at the right time,” Janelle said. “What he’s developed is a strong sense of being able to self-regulate, even though there are higher expectations.”
Janelle and his colleagues study how athletes’ performance can be affected by stress and emotion. They do this by hooking them up to machines that track eye movements during hitting a ball, for example, or squeezing a racket. Lin, like other top athletes, has also benefited from years of practicing a highly- specialized skill.
“Those who can achieve high level of performance regulate their emotions and attention to let their body do what it’s trained to do over many years,” he said.
Janelle compared Lin to a new pitcher that is striking out everyone he faces. In time, opposing teams will start compensating for his skills. Lin, for example, consistently drives to his right side instead of his left. He also has trouble with turnovers.
“Teams will start to make adjustments,” Janelle said, “and it will be interesting to see how he responds.”