Have you had one of those moments – at work, in relationships, in sport – when you are full of confidence, at the top of your game, and suddenly everything goes pear-shaped. You felt perfectly natural and at ease, and suddenly you are afflicted with a paralysing self-consciousness, an inability to do simple things well, an outer clumsiness combined with an inner terror at the prospect of failure. It’s England at the penalty shoot-out; it’s every second romantic comedy when the guy fumbles his words on the first date.
This is the psychological experience of ‘choking’, and it’s in the news a lot simply because we are all going sport crazy at the moment.
Simon Haterstone gives some examples:
Britain is no stranger to the choke. Reading the newspapers, or overhearing pub conversations, you might well imagine it’s a national pastime. The England football team? Ach, we’ll crack up when it comes to penalties. Murray at Wimbledon? Wait till it comes to the crunch. The Olympics? More tears from Paula Radcliffe. Of course, this is an unfair generalisation. All those cited have performed at the highest level, and Britain has produced any number of champions. Yet it’s undoubtedly true that in a summer in which so many will be playing for the highest stakes, many of the great sporting hopes, from whatever country, will buckle under the pressure.
Not surprisingly, sportspeople don’t like the word choking. Some prefer to say they lost their rhythm, others that they played too aggressively or were outplayed. And there may be some truth in their analysis. But certain catastrophic chokes are indisputable. There’s Jimmy White, who lost six snooker world championship finals and failed to pot a simple black to secure victory against Stephen Hendry in 1994; Jana Novotna, 4-1 up in the final set against Steffi Graf, double-faulting her way to defeat and weeping on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent in 1993; French golfer Jean Van de Velde who could have made a double bogey in the British Open at the 18th in 1999 and still won – but failed. The picture of Van de Velde paddling knee-deep in Barry Burn, trying to hit his ball out of the water, is one of sport’s most comic and desperate images.
Matthew Syed reflects on his table tennis meltdown at the Sydney Olympics:
It’s like you’ve reverted to being a beginner again. You don’t think about how you’re moving your right knee and right elbow or wrist when you hit a forehand slice when you’re a professional table tennis player. And suddenly I’m thinking about it, and as you try harder and harder you get worse and worse. You can see it when someone is choking; they become very stilted, the integration of all the moving parts of the body becomes decoupled and it just looks pretty hideous. Before he knew it, he had been annihilated. It wasn’t a loss of form, it was major psychological meltdown.
And then he draws some wider conclusions:
Syed believes choking affects most of us at one time or another – whether it’s at a job interview, on a date, in an exam, or simply when we’re on public display. “When you walk normally, you never think about how you’re moving your body. But when you walk in front of lots of people, say to pick up your graduation certificate, you are paranoid about falling over and suddenly you’re thinking about how you move your feet and it feels incredibly awkward. You feel like a caricature of somebody walking. That’s kind of what happened to me at the Olympic Games.”
What is really happening? Steve Peters, sports psychologist, explains:
Peters says if we have to use the word choke, let’s at least accept that it’s an umbrella term for a number of things – athletes might go into freeze mode (runners sometimes stop at 250 metres in a 400m race because that’s when it gets painful); flight mode where they sabotage their chances (in 2006, O’Sullivan walked out of a match with Stephen Hendry when he was 4-1 down but there was plenty to play for); they might over-think or under-think; they might become self-conscious because they are playing badly or playing well, or because they suddenly become aware of the crowd or the significance of the moment. He mentions Novotna’s collapse at Wimbledon. “It was unbelievable. Unbelievable. You did really think this poor woman, she’s moved from aspects of the brain that automatically flow, to a part of the brain that is actively thinking and trying to work things out – how to put a good service in. Well, you’re back to somebody who almost doesn’t know how to serve.”
Peters is a high-level sportsman himself. He didn’t start sprinting seriously till he was 40, then won world titles at masters levels, and astonishingly was called into the Olympics training squad at 44 as an “up and coming” athlete, having finished the 200m in 21.9 seconds. His experience makes it easier for him to understand what goes on inside the heads of champion athletes and his job is to find the reason why they behave in the way they do, treating the cause, not only the symptom.
He has broken down the sporting brain into a simplistic model of “chimp” and “human”. When it is working well, it’s a computer. When problems start, either the chimp (emotion) or the human (reason) take over. “When I go to compete, my chimp starts kicking off. It’s all about me managing what my chimp throws at me, like, ‘I can’t lose this, I mustn’t look stupid, I’m not fit enough’, it’s the classic stuff I’ll get when I work with elite athletes. So I can relate to that and the intensity of the feelings. If the human wakes up you become too rational, analytical, lose spontaneity and you can choke.”
I don’t like this language/labelling: as if we are more like computers when things are going well; as if we have to disconnect out humanity if we want to succeed at the highest level. But the idea of not being overcome by emotion or analysis seems valid. See how much you can apply to everyday struggles, even if you are not sprinting at the Olympics this summer.