How does someone become so icy under the most pressure? How does Tom Brady, time and time again succeed in the most difficult situations? I’m sure there are a lot of reasons, but I want to highlight “association.”
Association is this. When you experience something, your brain relates this experience, or associates it, with a memory. Maybe you see a hot girl and you want to ask her out but the only other time you did that, you got rejected. Well now you’re nervous because your brain associates this experience of seeing the hot girl with rejection.
So, when Tom Brady is down ten points going into the fourth quarter with the season on the line and 70,000 screaming fans putting their hopes and dreams of another title directly onto his shoulders, what memory is his brain associating this experience with? The biggest comeback in Super Bowl history? Driving down the field with 1:13 left in the Super Bowl XXXVIII to beat the Panthers in 2004? How about 90 seconds left in 2002, Brady carves up the Rams to set up Adam Vinatieri for a Super Bowl winning Field Goal?
I’m guessing he’s pretty comfortable in these situations. He almost seems to have a knack for getting into them. Which makes me wonder what memories he associates the first 45 minutes of the game with.
Most people would crumble under that kind of pressure but really, they would crumble under their own association. They would associate it with the moment, or the amount of people watching, or the media scrutiny or the size of the linemen looking to decapitate them as soon as they snap it. They would crumble based on the overwhelming association of that moment being dangerous and a really, really big deal. This is why a lot of athletes can score 30 points a game on the playground but as soon as the lights come on, they are averaging 4.2 points per game.
When we come across athletes like Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Derek Jeter, we have the perfect storm. I’m thinking that early on, little Tommy had some experiences like this. Maybe he went to see his dad play in an Men’s League Basketball Game and watched his pops calmly sink a pair of game winning free throws and then come over to little Tommy like it was no big deal. #MemoryMade. Maybe little Tommy threw a terrible pass in the waning moments of a pop warner game that went through the hands of the waiting defender, his wide receiver ended up catching it for the game winning touchdown and little Tommy was too naive to realize how brutal his pass was. #MemoryMade. Or maybe he just happened to be picked on Kindergarten Rec soccer team that just happened to win every single game and now he just assumes he’s going to win every time. Boom, #MemoryMade.
When we take his first memory of being a savage and put it with the way his parents raised him, his interactions with his friends, teachers and coaches, every other memory that falls into his crescendo of victory and all the other randomness of life and you get the perfect storm of Tommy “Ice in His Veins” Brady.
This is why the early years of childhood are so important because you are creating the memories that will set the stage for who this person will become as an adult. Why do you think babies can’t talk or do anything? Because they don’t have any memories to unfold. All of your movement, actions and words are just unfolding your memories.
So, the next time you see TB12 down by three, with 50 seconds left and the weight of the world on his shoulders, know that he is about to unfold a lifetime of memories and associations leading to that moment while Blake Bortles is going to be unfolding a very different collections of memories.
Neuroscience for the win.