Killer Instinct: From Rory McIlroy and LeBron James to Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan

While I only have two sports in my wheelhouse (baseball and football), with the U.S. Open about to get underway and the NBA Finals recently completed, I decided I would step outside my comfort zone and discuss things I normally do not talk about. I do not claim to know the first thing about golf or know a whole lot about basketball, but I think I am pretty confident to discuss the psychology of athletes.

In a recent press conference, McIlroy spoke up and defended LeBron James. As a fellow athlete who has also gotten criticized in recent years for coming up short when he needed to the most McIlroy said this:
I think he’s been unfairly scrutinized. Everyone is going to have bad days – if it’s on the golf course or on a basketball court. And with sports these days everything is overanalyzed: stats here, stats there, how has your team combined points in the last quarter of the Finals or whatever. It’s just one of those things.
There is a lot of truth in that. ESPN (who is the main and really sole sports hype machine in America) did all that they could to talk about King James and beat that into the ground. They lead with him every night on SportsCenter, they have the "Heat Index" on, and they were the vehicle for The Decision and thought it was a good idea.

However, it was what the young 22-year-old golfer said next that really took me aback. He said:
If people keep talking about having a bad last quarter all the time it’s going to get to you
If you listened to the way Rory said that comment too you could tell he was talking about himself as well as LeBron. It was just weird yet refreshing to hear an athlete say that these self-fulfilling prophecies these "analysts" talk about will come true. If people keep saying you are not clutch then you start to believe it and then it turn not become clutch.

We all know about LeBron's faults for not coming up in the fourth quarter during the 2011 NBA Finals but many of you may not know about Rory McIlroy's (to be honest I do not know a whole lot either) faults. At this years Masters (the one in which you get the stylish Green Jacket) McIlroy was destroying the competition for three days. Going into the fourth and final day McIlroy was leading everyone by four strokes and was 12 under par. He ended up finishing the Masters tied for 15th place and only four under par. It was called one of the epic collapses in sports. This was not the first time McIlroy was up late in the tournament, was the favorite to win it all and lost.

That Masters weekend I got my entire sports trivia from SportsCenter (see, I told you they are the hype machine) and all anyone was talking about before that Sunday was just how good the (then) 21-year-old was and how he was the next Tiger Woods. Then came Sunday night's SportsCenter along with coverage of the collapse and I thought to myself:
I don't think that kid has the killer instinct the greats do to win.
And I still believe that today.

It is no secret that people play different when they are ahead than when they are behind. People play differently when people are watching them than when people are not. And people play differently when they need to the most and some people fold like a house of cards in the clutch.

Me personally, I'm a folder. That's probably why I blog about sports instead of play them. I can play an easy song on Guitar Hero and start to play it perfectly but then about two thirds of the way into the song I miss an easy note and perfection is ruined. The same holds true when I play Wii Sports. I can bowl the shit out of that game when I'm just chilling alone but when other people are watching and counting on me I just can't do it. I start to get into my own head. I start to over analyze everything. I start to tense up and forgot all the practice I learned. That's just the person I am.

I think this is also the type of person and athletes that Rory McIlroy and LeBron James are. I think they have great talent and I think in all situations beside the clutch they are fantastic and better than everyone out there. But when it's the bottom of the ninth in Game 7, two outs, a runner on third, and their team is down by one, they strike out and fail to hit the home like they would have done in this exact same scenario five innings earlier. Most athletes want the rock. I don't think these athletes do.

This killer instinct is what made Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan so good and probably the best athletes to play their respective sports. There are many players that are/ were above average to great, but what made guys like Michael and Tiger super elite was their ability to be clutch and that drive inside them to put everyone on their back and rise to the occasion.

I am actually not going to fault Rory and LeBron (OK, maybe LeBrown because I still dislike him and want to see him fail just like every other sports fan in America) for coming up short. I think that's who these guys are and that is just what they will be. I think that needs to be the expectation for these fellows. I don't fault Donovan McNabb for coming up short in all those NFC Championship games/ Superbowl 34, I credit him for getting that far. I think unfair expectations has been set on these players and I think we need to temper those expectations.

I don't expect Rory McIlroy to win the U.S. Open. But what I do expect is for him to get a top ten or top five finish. That's I think that is what he is and that I what we should realistically expect from him.