Why We Choke

Reading Matthew Syed’s Bounce reinforced my views about the importance of hard work and application over natural abilities in determining success. Bounce includes numerous real-life examples from sport, evidencing “the myth of talent and the power of practice” in compelling terms. There is no sprinkling of fairy dust from the day of birth. All we need for excellence is time. And purpose.


The most interesting and unexpected topic in Bounce, and the reason for this blog, was a chapter on “choking” in sport and why it happens. We’ve all been there, whether it’s bowling wides at a crucial stage of an innings, missing a 3-footer when the round depends on it, or sending a penalty into the clouds like the great Roberto Baggio when hopes were pinned on him in the 1994 World Cup Final. I never really thought deeply about what causes it though. We simply know it happens. It’s pressure. People react differently under pressure and that’s it.


So how do you overcome the chances of it happening? Initially, by understanding why it happens. Reading Bounce is the first time I’ve seen or heard such a detailed, biological explanation.


To begin with, it seems the less proficient you are, the less likely you could be to choke. How strange? When you begin to understand how the brain works it starts to make sense, relating to the fact that the more advanced we are, the more practice has gone into reaching that level of ability. Practicing over and over again forces the brain to patternise the various parts of a complex technique, eventually storing them so they can be reproduced without thinking. Doing something on “autopilot” activates a different part of the brain (the subconscious) to the part that causes us to learn a completely new skill, or to rationalise and reach a conclusion to a previously unseen problem (the conscious). What happens when we choke? Our conscious mind takes over. This sounds good – after all, logic and focus in the heat of battle are good things, right? The problem is, this part of the brain isn’t capable of reproducing the interlinked, complicated patterns of information that have been learned over hours and hours of practice. Effectively, the patterns start to break down, our thoughts dissect our technique into its component parts and try to put them together again, with disastrous results. We essentially go back to where we started, almost as though we’re learning the skill from scratch in that particular moment. 


I’ve often hailed the most special of sportsmen and women as those who rise to the occasion, coming up with the goods at the most crucial times. Maybe they are not rising to the occasion at all, and this is the key – they are able to disregard the occasion. They slip into their subconscious. Think about it: how many of the best performances and feats have we seen or heard about which happened in practice? Distractions can potentially be helpful when you look at it like this. In the cauldron of pressure, if you’re homing in on all the individual things you need to be doing then you either haven’t practiced hard enough or your brain has jumped into its conscious cockpit. When it matters most, you don’t want consciousness at the controls. The other thing being on autopilot does, is free up mental capacity to observe and act upon other aspects of the contest: strategy, changes in tactics and sensing an opponent’s weakness.


It’s hard to convince yourself something isn’t important when you know it is. Bill Shankly once said “Football is not a matter of life and death. It’s more than that.” The iconic Liverpool manager, a family man, would have known this wasn’t true. Therefore, one consideration is perspective: life, health, family, religion, anything that pales our sporting desires into insignificance. Or merely being able to switch off the tendency to begin thinking about the individual parts of your technique. It’s difficult, like telling yourself not to laugh when you know you shouldn’t. 


To stay in the zone then, think less. Don’t analyse. Not when the chips are down. Practice, practice, practice, and trust in what you’ve practiced. Then when the pressure is on, try to let the subconscious do the rest.

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