June 2, 2011
When it comes to choking, I think it’s safe to say that I have been there and done that. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, “Sure haven’t we all received a red card 2 minutes after being brought on? Haven’t we all been substituted after 20 minutes (if that) in a championship final? Aren’t we all haunted by the one-on-one ghosts of 5-aside football?” Maybe so. But having experienced, first hand, the mysteries and fast-paced cruelties of choking in sport, it has always been something which vastly intrigued me – if not just for the reassuring feeling that I am not alone.
At the highest level of any sport, there are consistent indications that top athletes can fail to perform basic skills because of the “pressures” of the environment they face. Simple, automatic tasks that we could perform perfectly 9 times out of 10 are just seemingly beyond our capabilities when we allow additional factors to creep into our thinking on the tenth, and usually most important, attempt.
How often have you heard someone (or even yourself) condemn a so-called professional footballer for missing the target from 12 yards? Give me one hundred thousand a week and I’ll do that for you no problem – sound familiar? Yet we’ve seen player of the tournament Roberto Baggio and technical maestro David Beckham both balloon penalty kicks when it mattered most. (Many people would also point to John Terry’s catastrophe in the Champions League Final in 2008. However, I don’t think this was a case of choking – rather the result of a clumsy, inept centre back electing himself as one of his team’s top 5 place kickers, and then having the audacity to think he could put it in the top corner) The difference was, it did matter most and sometimes, when it is a do-or-die scenario, even the most experienced and the most gifted athletes on the planet start to notice the crowd, the wind, the rain, the opposition, and the enormity of what the outcome will mean for you and your team.
You see, the trick is to ensure that all these skills that you have already mastered, that you have already perfected long ago, remain automatic when you are performing them on game-day; but when other irrelevant aspects of a competition are noticed and focused on, you will find that the resultant worry and anxiety will show even the best sport performers giving conscious effort to their tasks and consequently, their technique suffers. Of course, this hindrance of concentration also has horrendous, more expected effects on open play situations with players unable to pay attention to what they should, or simply dwelling on just one mistake.
In April, even the most reluctant golf fan in Northern Ireland tuned in to the 4th day of the Augusta Masters to witness sporting history. Rory McIlroy, improving with every tournament, had taken a 4 shot lead into the final day of the first golf major of the year. Unfortunately, the history we observed climaxed rapidly with McIlroy’s form no longer being deemed worthy to broadcast after the 12th hole and the Holywood man finishing the day with the record for the worst ever round by any professional golfer who led after the third round of the Masters.
When sportstars fail to keep control of their psychological state, a significant and swift decrease in performance is evident in all-too-many cases. Slap a £50m valuation and a responsibility to revive a season on one of the football world’s best strikers and see the results; put a rookie, J.R Hildebrand, in the lead in last weekend’s Indy 500 and watch how he unnecessarily capitulates on the final corner; type Jean Van de Velde into any search engine and laugh as hard as you did 12 years ago; or simply go watch Andy Murray in a grand slam final (possibly this weekend).
In 2008, a fresh-faced Murray overcame Wawrinka, del Potro, and Rafa Nadal before bowing out on straight sets to the immaculate Roger in the US Open final. The Swiss went on to declare that Murray was “way too good” not to win a grand slam eventually; but two further final appearances and just 6 sets later, the now 24 year old Scotsman (sorry, Brit* for any English readers) has yet to deliver on his obvious talent.
There is an ongoing, contemporary debate in sport psychology as to whether or not the mental toughness of an athlete is an accurate enough predictor of potential champions. When the chips are down, when backs are to the wall, does the sportsperson have enough steel to overcome adversity and stick to their natural game and pre-planned tactics. Tiger Woods stated that it is crucial that the same pace and routine is maintained between each hole (GOLF hole…) and when you compare how rushed and inconsistent someone like Rory McIlroy’s shots and decision making time became once one thing went wrong at the Masters, it’s easy to believe that what the world’s greatest golfer has to say has some substance to it. Mental toughness is essential in preventing cognitive anxiety creating negative repercussions on the performance of an athlete. I have studied how the importance of a competition can contribute to the rise of nerves and sometimes to the downfall of performance as a result. Someone with Murray’s ability, who isn’t winning majors, must surely suffer from media pressure, from big game nerves, from perceived unflappable opponents and, of course, that monkey on his back which grows bigger and louder every time he is eliminated from a grand slam competition. Unless, simply, the former world number 2 just isn’t good enough…
I don’t believe the latter and, frankly, Murray’s disdain for psychological help (not to mention his former reluctance for a coach) has led me to believe that his apparent no-shows in major finals is definitely a mental, rather than any physical, thing. There’s a term “quicksand” used by our transatlantic cousins which is used to describe a choking experience. Everything’s going fine until one thing goes wrong; and then another, and another; and even though you try to fight back – the harder you fight, the deeper you sink; and you keep sinking until you can’t move and you can’t breathe because you’re in over your head. We all know that the number one tennis player on the British Isles has a heart like a lion; but as the legendary Vince Lombardi alluded to, athletes need a whole lot of both heart and head to be successful. And despite how hard we think Murray works when he’s on the ropes, it has previously been a hindrance to him – pulling his shots because he’s overcorrecting his technique, attacking when he should be flowing, and generally allowing big occasions to get to him.
A chronic choker is someone who develops a case of what is known as learned helplessness. Athletes can convince themselves that they will never succeed at a particular task and they believe that they are not good enough and it is not within their control to change that. And while I firmly have confidence that Andy will, one day, overcome his major tournament demons, I think he needs to act sooner rather than later. He needs to embrace a few mental routines for himself.
Jonny Wilkinson’s familiar pose before he strikes a place kick is now world renowned and his routine before every penalty and conversion has given him something to fall back on when the pressure is on – something that will deflect the distractors in the crowd, in the media, in his head, and something which will restore his optimal psychological and physical state so he can be sure that his technique will be the same at Twickenham as it is in his backyard. Even in open play, Wilko (we’re not pals – I just thought I’d get away with that) stated that imagery played a massive role in his successful execution of that World Cup winning drop goal – off his right boot.
And notwithstanding my casual criticism of psychology as an academic subject because of the weakness of science involved, I’ve always been an advocate of mental rehearsal in the form of pre-performance routines and mental imagery. Recent studies have shown that both imagery and actually the physical completion of a skill use the same activation patterns in the brain, and on top of professional athletes in various sports engaging in these psychological intervention strategies, they have also assisted my own sporting progress to no end. Okay, my 5-aside one-on-one calamities continue – I’ve accepted that finishing in football requires an ability to finish – but you can be sure that, given some space and time, I can find a free player and pick a pass… most days. And to the same scale, maybe if Andy Murray takes on board what I have to say (I’m not sure if he’s a regular reader), he can sort that head of his out and instil enough mental toughness to make sure he doesn’t choke at the next final hurdle he faces. Maybe this weekend.This entry was posted in Psychology. Bookmark the permalink. ← Cricket: A First Timer’s View #RaiseYourGame – Rafa Nadal (5th June 2011) →