x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Win or lose, there is a science to 'choking'

Five of the most famous 'chokes' and the art of winning

Jana Novotna is consoled by the Duchess of Kent after losing at Wimbledon in 1993.
Jana Novotna is consoled by the Duchess of Kent after losing at Wimbledon in 1993.

Sports scientists have made great strides in understanding why some athletes struggle under pressure.

Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, believes that the prefrontal cortex of the brain is key to understanding “choking”.

Under stressful circumstances, resources are allocated to this area, which is responsible for informational memory, Beilock told Time magazine.

But for professional athletes, those resources should be set aside for the area that controls the planning and execution of movements, the motor cortex.

In effect, athletes choke when their prefrontal cortex becomes too busy and they are most successful when it is quiet.

The opposite of choking, at least in American sports lexicon, is “clutch”.

Clutch performers excel under pressure, often making the difference between winning and losing, although many critics claim that statistical evidence shows that clutch is nothing more than a perception.

But some experts believe that the idea of clutch is – at the very least – biologically plausible.

“Gross-motor skills like running and punching improve steadily the greater the pressure; even when we’re on the verge of death – when, say, a bear is nipping at our heels,” the science writer Jeff Wise argues in his blog.

He believes that statistical analyses of clutch fail because “athletes are not performing in a vacuum”.

“If everyone at the professional level is a clutch player, to some extent, then statistically it will seem as none of them are,” he says.

But are some players more capable of clutch performances than others? The debate continues.


Jana Novotna, Wimbledon final, 1993

On serve and 4-1 up in the deciding set after winning the second set 6-1, Novotna double-faulted. Steffi Graf pounced and 10 minutes later consigned Novotna to defeat. The Duchess of Kent memorably consoled a tearful Novotna at the awards ceremony after the match.

Roberto Baggio, World Cup final, 1994

Much like Lance Klusener in the 1999 Cricket World Cup, Baggio had almost single-handedly carried Italy at the World Cup. The final against the Brazilians went to penalties and Baggio smashed Italy's final spot-kick over the crossbar, handing the title to Brazil.

Greg Norman, The Masters, 1996

On Day 1 of the The Masters at Augusta, Greg Norman shot a course-record 63. On the final day, the Australian not only blew a six-shot lead but ended the tournament five strokes behind the eventual winner Nick Faldo after shooting a disastrous final round of 78.

New Zealand, Rugby World Cup, 1999

The All Blacks were favourites to win the William Webb Ellis trophy in England. The best team in world rugby led their semi-final against France by 14 points at half time but they fell to pieces in the second half and Les Bleus fought back spectacularly to win 43-31.

Lolo Jones, Beijing Olympics, 2008

The American athlete was one of the favourites to win Olympic gold in the 100-metre hurdles at the Summer Games. After pulling out to a commanding lead, she clipped the ninth of the 10 hurdles and stumbled to a seventh-place finish.