x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Losing is no choking matter in sport

By now it is fair to say we think we have a pretty good grasp of what is actually happening when an athlete chokes, abysmal and inadequate as that word is for describing what it intends to.

Bogeys on the final four holes cost the Australian Adam Scott the British Open on Sunday. Chris Carlson / AP Photo
Bogeys on the final four holes cost the Australian Adam Scott the British Open on Sunday. Chris Carlson / AP Photo

By now it is fair to say we think we have a pretty good grasp of what is actually happening when an athlete chokes, abysmal and inadequate as that word is for describing what it intends to.

As soon as it begun to happen to Adam Scott during the final stretch of the British Open on Sunday, for example, we thought we had a rough idea of what was going on.

In much smarter and bigger words, Sian L Beilock and Thomas Carr from Michigan State University, tell us about it in a paper entitled On the fragility of skilled performance: What governs choking under pressure? published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Based almost inevitably around putting experiments - in no sport is choking as prominent as it is in golf - the paper highlights a couple of theories that feed from and into each other: distraction and self-focus (or explicit monitoring).

We know the former as those occasions when the magnitude of a situation, such as winning a British Open, and the consequences of losing it, distracts the athlete from concentrating on doing what he does routinely.

The latter is a little more complex: "pressure raises self-consciousness and anxiety about performing correctly, which increases the attention paid to skill processes and their step-by-step control," explains the paper.

In other words, when pressure makes the player think too deeply and intricately about their game and forget to not think; this is fatal because at the highest level sportsmen succeed on precisely an unthinking execution - and repetition - of a skill.

We can probably understand, if we're familiar with Malcolm Gladwell's essay Art of Failure, that choking and panicking might look, sound and taste like the same things, but that, in fact, they are not. Panic, Gladwell argues convincingly, is actually the opposite of choking, about thinking too little where choking is thinking too much; about reverting to instinct (panic), not losing it (choking).

We can probably do with learning a little bit more about what is going on when entire collectives choke. Why, for instance, did the New Zealand All Blacks find new ways to lose out at the Rugby World Cup for so long despite being so capable of winning it? Or how it has become ritual that South Africa, consistently one of the best cricket sides in the world, will sail confidently through global tournaments only to fail at one late stage.

Does the experience of these two teams imply that a concept as abstract as a choke can diffuse through groups of athletes, sensorially infectious perhaps? (Ronnie O'Sullivan, the snooker player, incidentally, says he can smell an opponent choking.) And given that both these sides have done this over a number of years, involving different players, coaches, management and leaders, does that mean choking, at an individual and national level, can become a characteristic?

But here is the more pressing and circular query: if we know what it means to choke, do we know what it feels to do so because without feeling it, can we claim to know what it truly means?

We have ideas because later when they speak they inform us about how they felt. Scott said he "felt extremely calm" through his four-hole surrendering of the lead.

Told by a reporter that he looked lost in the iconic image knee-deep in water as he spectacularly let slip the 1999 British Open from his grasp, the French golfer Jean van de Velde's reply was bristling. "No, I totally disagree with you. I don't look lost at all. Look at the pictures, I am smiling, looking at the situation."

We have an idea of how Jana Novotna must have felt when she lost to Steffi Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon final, having been 4-1 and 40-30 up on her serve in the final set. Or rather, we have an idea how she felt after the choke, because she cried uncontrollably and publicly on the Duchess of Kent's shoulder. But what was she feeling during that blur of snatched double-faults?

And we know how we can feel watching it. But that is not the same as feeling it. Most of us in life falter under pressure at some point; if we're lucky it is small and inconsequential usually and something big rarely. But we're really lucky we don't do so in front of vast, watching humanity and really very lucky that it isn't in as cut-throat an environment as professional sport.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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