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Why We Choke

The book Bounce by Matthew Syed is an interesting look at the science of success, filled with stories and interviews of some of the most recognized names in sport.

While Syed focuses the majority of the book on what it takes to excel in sport, or anything for that matter, there is a really interesting chapter on why we choke.

For those of you familiar with the Farnam Street mental models, you’ll recall the concept of inversion. If we want to know how to succeed, we also need to know how to avoid failure.

Why We Choke

Syed himself choked in one of the most important games of his career.

He had made it to Sydney Olympics in 2000 and it was the first time he had been a medal hopeful. He was 29 at the time and already a decorated table tennis player.

He was at the top of his game and was filled with confidence – so why did he choke?

Well to understand that let's first look at what happened to him that day.

Franz stroked the ball into play – a light and gentle forehand topspin. It was not a difficult stroke to return, not a stroke I would normally have had any trouble pouncing upon, and yet I was strangely late on it, my feet stuck in their original position, my racket jabbing at the ball in a way that was totally unfamiliar. My return missed the table by more than two feet.

I shook out my hand, sensing that something was wrong and hoping it would rectify itself. But things got worse. Each time my opponent played a stroke, I found my body doing things that bore no relation to anything I had learned over the last twenty years of playing table tennis: my feet were sluggish, my movements alien, my touch barely existent.

I was trying as hard as I could; I yearned for victory more intensely than in any match i had ever played; and yet it was if I had regressed to the time when I was a beginner.

So why would an elite athlete suddenly play like a beginner?

It comes down to the two ways your mind functions when completing tasks; it uses explicit and implicit monitoring. A novice will use much more conscious or explicit monitoring as they are learning, trying to focus, and trying to remember. An expert has put in the time and gotten to the point where there is a switch to the unconscious or implicit mind. Syed explains:

… the prefrontal cortex is activated when a novice is learning a skill, but that control of the stroke switches over time to areas such as the basal ganglia, which is partly responsible for touch and feel.

This migration from the explicit to the implicit system of the brain has two crucial advantages. First, it enables the expert player to integrate the various parts of a complex skill into one fluent whole …, something that would be impossible at a conscious level because there are too many interconnecting variables for the conscious mind to handle. And second, it frees up attention to focus on higher-level aspects of the skill such as tactics and strategy.

This transition between brain systems can be most easily understood by thinking about what happens when you learn to drive a car. When you start out, you have to focus intently in order to move the gearshift while keeping the steering wheel in the right place, pushing on the clutch, and keeping an eye on the road. In fact, at the beginning these tasks are so difficult to execute simultaneously that the instructor starts you off in a parking lot and helps you slowly to integrate the various elements.

After a few years of driving your car you don’t think much at all about all the elements that are coming together to help guide you down the road. In fact, you are so comfortable with the act that you can sip coffee and sing along to the song on the radio while doing a task that, at one point, was very difficult for you to master. But what happens if something occurred to suddenly shift you from implicit back to explicit, from the unconscious back to the conscious?

This situation has been re-created by Robert Gray, a psychologist at Arizona State University. He took a group of outstanding intercollegiate baseball players and asked them to swing at a moving ball while listening for a randomly presented tone to judge whether the tone was high or low in frequency. As expected, the tone-listening task had no detrimental effect on the efficiency of their swings… Why? Because baseball hitters have automated their shot-making.

But when hitters were asked to indicate whether their bat was moving up or down at the instant the tone sounded, their performance levels plummeted. Why? Because this time the secondary task forced them to direct their attention toward the swing itself. They were consciously monitoring a stroke that was supposed to be automatic. Explicit monitoring was vying with implicit execution.

Their problem was not a lack of focus, but too much focus. Conscious monitoring had disrupted the smooth workings of the implicit system. The sequencing and timing of the different motor responses were fragmented, just as they would be with a novice. They were, effectively, beginners again.

So choking is a form of psychological reversion.

A complex task that you were able to do unconsciously suddenly comes into sharp focus and the complexity of it is really too much for your conscious brain to handle. And, now that your conscious brain is wrapped up in trying to figure out the nuance of this thing you used to know, you can forget about any higher level thinking. In an instant, your switch in focus has turned you from an expert back into a beginner.

Syed explains in more detail:

Consider what happens when executing a simple task, like keeping a cup of coffee upright under pressure – say, because you are walking across a very expensive carpet. In these circumstances, explicit attention is just what you need. By focusing on keeping the cup vertical, you are far less likely to spill the contents because of inadvertence or a lack of concentration. On simple tasks, the tendency to slow down and take conscious control confers huge advantages.

But precisely the opposite applies when executing a complex task. When an expert hits a moving table tennis ball or strikes a fade on a golf shot, any tendency to direct attention toward the mechanics of the shot is likely to be catastrophic because there are too many interconnecting variables for the conscious mind to handle (this is another example of combinatorial explosion).

Choking, then, is a kind of neural glitch that occurs when the brain switches to a system of explicit monitoring in circumstances when it ought to stick to the implicit system. It is not something the performer does intentionally; it just happens. And once the explicit system has kicked in (as anyone who has been afflicted by choking will tell you), it is damned difficult to switch out of.

So how do we overcome choking and stop the explicit system from taking over?

Considering that choking only ever occurs in highly pressurized circumstances, what better way than to convince oneself that a career-defining contest doesn’t really matter? After all, if the performer does not feel any pressure, there is no pressure – and the conscious mind will not attempt to wrestle control from the implicit system.

In the end Syed worked with sports psychologist Mark Bawden to help him overcome his issues with choking. They came up with strategies to lessen the pressure of big matches.

I worked with Bawden for many years after the Olympic Games in Sydney to ward off choking. My method was to think about all the things that are so much more important than sport: health, family, relationships, and so on. During my prematch routine, I would spend a few minutes in a deeply relaxed state, filling my mind with these thoughts, finishing with an affirmation…: ‘It’s only table tennis!’ By the time I reached the court, my beliefs had altered: the match was no longer the be-all and end-all.

This is a good strategy for the next time you have an important meeting/interview/presentation, counter-intuitively tell yourself it’s not that big of a deal. Remind yourself of all the things that are more important and maybe even calm yourself with some stoic negative thinking. Be confident and try not to overthink.