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Hidden Brain: What's The Source Of Success In Sports?
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Hidden Brain: What's The Source Of Success In Sports?

Hidden Brain: What's The Source Of Success In Sports?

Hidden Brain: What's The Source Of Success In Sports?
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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/443053693/443053694" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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When the same athletes succeed over and over at a sport, is it because they are simply more talented than everyone else, or is it because "nothing succeeds like success"?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Why do the New England Patriots keep winning? They won the Super Bowl last season, of course. They have won four Super Bowls. Maybe it's that Tom Brady is great or that coach Bill Belichick is a genius. Critics, of course, are already screaming at the radio that it's because they bend the rules, something the Patriots were accused of even before Deflategate. So you can offer many reasons why the Patriots win. But maybe there's something more, something else that causes winning athletes to keep winning. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam has come across some new research suggesting that. Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the research?

VEDANTAM: Well, the other possibility, Steve, is that success really builds on itself. You know, there's an old saying, nothing succeeds like success.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

VEDANTAM: And we see this not just in football. We see this in a number of other sports. You know, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic end up in the tennis finals over and over again. The New York Yankees keep winning championships over and over again. So in every sport, you see a small group of people succeeding consistently over long periods of time.

INSKEEP: OK, so this makes sense intuitively, which is why there's a saying about nothing succeeds like success. But how would you test that scientifically to find out if there's something there?

VEDANTAM: Well, that's the $64 million question, Steve, because it's very difficult to disentangle the effects of talent from the effects of success building upon success. They both look exactly the same. I came by a very ingenious piece of research that tried to do just that. Olof Rosenqvist and Oskar Nordstrom Skans in Sweden looked at professional men's golf tournaments in Europe over a two year period. Now, these tournaments typically have an initial phase where a group of about 140 players is whittled down to about half that number. This is called making the cut. Now, players who make the cut are the ones we usually see on TV playing for money.

INSKEEP: Right.

VEDANTAM: Now, what the researchers did in each tournament was to compare the very last player to make the cut and the very first player who failed to make the cut. Now, in most tournaments, the difference between these two players is miniscule. They're basically identical in performance, except one of them makes the cut; one of them doesn't.

INSKEEP: And it's huge because if you make the cut, you get onto the weekend. You're going to get some prize money. You feel like a winner. And if you missed the cut, you're going home.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. Now, what the researchers did is analyzed how likely each of these two players are to make the cut in the next tournament. In other words, they were asking, if you just happen, largely by chance, to make the cut in tournament A, does that change your odds of making the cut in tournament B?

INSKEEP: And?

VEDANTAM: They find that there are very strong effects where success seems to breed success. Players who just make the cut in tournament A become much more likely to make the cut in tournament B. So small differences, or even just plain luck, can start to build on itself. Now, in this study, Steve, the researchers were only examining the difference between two average players, let's say the 67th and the 68th player out of a field of 140.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

VEDANTAM: You could imagine the same thing happening all the way up and down the field.

INSKEEP: So we have scientific demonstrations that success breeds success. We still have the question of why. What's going on there? Is it just that people get some confidence? Is it something deeper than that?

VEDANTAM: Well, the researchers find that the place where it really seems to make a difference is when tournament B, the second tournament, is a high-stakes, high-pressure, high-prize type of tournament. In other words, players who make the cut in tournament A are more likely to succeed in tournament B when tournament B involves a lot of pressure. And so they are speculating that really what does happen is that winning once gives you the confidence that you're likely to win again. And success breeds confidence. And confidence breeds more success.

INSKEEP: And also simply learning - you've learned how to deal with the pressure.

VEDANTAM: So when Tom Brady shows up at the Super Bowl this year, in other words, he's won four times already. He clearly knows how to do it.

INSKEEP: If he gets there again. Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam, regular guest here and also, by the way, the host of a new podcast, Hidden Brain.

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