Proteas: why they choke

The Proteas choked again in the Champions Trophy semi-final on Wednesday. Take a look at CyberShrink's explanation for why this happens to sportsmen under pressure.

It sometimes seems choking is a specific problem in SA cricket - if only we could introduce choking as an Olympic event, they'd bring home the Gold Medal every time. Or would they "choke" and inconveniently win the games they'd need to lose?

Choking is described in both team and individual sports of all kinds around the world.  But it seems a relatively recent problem, not really identified and described in the earlier decades of the last century. Of course in the past, apart from a newsreel cameraman and maybe a radio commentary, a sportsman's every beverage break would not be available for study and comment by millions of viewers, with action replays, slo-mo, and computer projections. And any professional individual or team plays an enormous amount more sport than ever before. It's not that long ago that there were very few major international fixtures or tournaments; now play seems almost continuous.

In those old pre-choking days, people just went out and played sport. There might be some practice sessions, maybe a coach - but now they're surrounded by a bevy of specialised coaches, physios, and sports psychologists, while the very problems such services would presumably help to prevent, become ever more common. CSA head Majola has emphasised that they have "a number of psychologists" for the team, including one considered the best in the country. I wonder what they actually do.

Even a simple web check reveals the monotonous regularity with which the Proteas and various players and officials deny that they have ever choked, or that they will ever do so. Then they go out and choke.

What do we mean by choking?

It's when a sportsman or team lose a game or tournament they were favoured to win, had no obvious handicaps or limitations preventing them from winning, and, often, where they squandered a large lead to lose against the odds. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, to reverse the old cliché.

It's a combination of poor quality performance and disappointed expectations. They must be skilled and well capable of the level of performance expected, or there wouldn’t be the dramatic disappointment. The term only seems to have become widely used from the 1960s onwards, starting within American sports, especially within baseball and American football.

It's not about a thoroughly bad performance, but about a collapse, a series of mistakes and last moment bad play. Things fall apart.

Déjà vu all over again

SA's particular nemesis seems to be the ICC World Cup, where our performances have been consistently bitterly disappointing. Such patterns reveal a substantial psychological dimension, as though they approach these games with a sense of expected doom.

Three of their losses were notoriously peculiar, and must have had a special traumatic impact.

In 1992, after a 2-over rain delay, a controversial (and as this instance demonstrated, silly) rule was applied, changing their target for victory from an exciting and possible 22 from 13 balls, to a ludicrous demand for 21 runs from 1 ball.

In 1999, the second SA innings ended in chaos with a foolishly bungled run-out, leading to a draw from which Australia proceeded due to a better run-rate. Ironically, one of those who infuriated fans was Allan Donald, now a bowling coach for the New Zealand team which knocked SA out this time around.

In 2003, playing Sri Lanka in a must-win match also affected by rain, they tied, when they could have won, due to absurdly misinterpreting the Duckworth-Lewis rain rules before the match was called off.

Their other two exits were less bizarre, but to greatly lesser favoured teams. These were three traumatic events, causing lasting damage to team morale, combining loss with absurdity, outrage, and inexcusable errors.

The psychology of choking

The psychology of choking is not well understood, though some claim to do so. Surely, if it were well understood and preventable, the Proteas would have hired the best on earth to explain and prevent it for them. Either they haven't done so, or such expertise doesn't exist.

It's a form of self-sabotage and self-defeat - it is not being overwhelmed by a superior opponent or being incompetent players.

Some claim it's basically thinking too much. Instead of doing instinctively, semi-automatically, what you usually do very effectively, the athlete gets nervous and self-conscious. They try too hard not to make mistakes - which in itself is usually a mistake. They lose the grace of their natural and practised talent, and become awkward and prone to errors they would not usually make.

Most of us have experienced, when learning a new skill such as driving, that at first many manoeuvres have to be conscious and deliberate, and feel awkward.  With practice they become fluent and smooth and need little thinking, leaving us free to think about other more immediately relevant matters. Some people even literally, drive in their sleep, in an equivalent of sleep-walking. A novice performs better when thinking busily about all relevant aspects of the task.

Studies of brain-waves have shown that experienced athletes enter "the zone" and show a tranquil state of mind, ignoring irrelevancies in the outside world, and performing at their peak. The more they think about what they're doing, the worse they perform. If someone asks them to pay particular attention to some aspect of their performance, they mess up. When then begin second-guessing their practised instincts, they fail.

It includes "spectatoring" - watching yourself and worrying about what the crowd, team-mates or others will think of your performance. Indeed, too much noise from supporters is usually unhelpful, and adds to self-consciousness and the risk of errors.

Let me tell you a choke

It spirals - each error makes another more likely, and stress builds. Ironically, as "team-building" is perhaps over-emphasised, this may mean that subsequent team members when called into play, get stressed and spiralled out of their efficient comfort zone, by the prior failures of others before them. It's not anxiety alone, but anxiety combined with self-consciousness that causes chokes.

Sometimes empty slogans given by a coach, help - not because they're true or even, in themselves, helpful - but because concentrating on them directs us away from other more engaging and damaging issues and thoughts. It's like a mantra used in meditation. Positive self-talk can serve this purpose.

It's more than just performance anxiety. It's a cocktail of performance anxiety, excessive awareness of self , crowd and context, the importance and significance of the occasion, and of the consequences of failure.

It's not so much the situation itself, but your interpretation of it, and how it influences your assumptions, distracting from the immediate task. One needs to try to play well, rather than perfectly. The body knows what to do, and should just be allowed to do it.

The more you tell sportsmen not to choke, the more likely they are to do it. The more they are lured in interviews to insist that they will not choke, the more likely it becomes. Thinking you (or "we") may have lost control, loses control. It's not the same as panic - in a panic you have no idea what to do. In choking you know exactly what to do, and have often done it before - you just don't do it.

(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, March 2011)

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