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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.

Ashley Cole agony after missing penalty for England

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.

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Cultural critic Fr Martin Boland questions the idea that football has become a substitute for religion in secular modernity. His reflections were inspired by what he thinks might be the greatest television advert of all time, which you can see here:

He accepts that football has become a central part of the popular imagination:

Football, as the Write the Future advert shows, has mesmerised the collective cultural imagination, both locally and globally. But it wasn’t always so. Before the age of Sky TV and the big bucks of international oligarchs, football attracted a loyal, enthusiastic following but there remained a great mass of people who considered the game as a prehistoric pastime, a sporting brontosaurus on its way to extinction. Their image of football was of socially disenfranchised men passing through creaking turnstiles and standing on crumbling terraces beneath dishwater grey skies. Players with bad haircuts, bad shorts and bad prospects.

Then, the reinvention began. A makeover on an international scale. Football went designer and everybody (even those who knew next to nothing about football) wanted to wear the label, have others sniff the scent on them. New stadiums gleamed. Players, oiled and manicured, modelled Dolce & Gabbana underpants with the word Calcio on their waistbands. Football got funky and sexy. Football, if not writing the future, acquired the power to write big cheques for players, agents, managers and FIFA bosses. Serious fans may see this as a cynical exploitation of the game they love, but the public at large just want to buy in to brand Football.

But you don’t need the golden tongue of a poet to appreciate that, consciously or unconsciously, football has evolved into an athletic metaphor for the intangible delight and desolation of being alive. “Sport is more important than I ever gave it credit for, and athletes have a greater significance in everyday life than ninety-nine per cent of windbag politicians,” wrote the sports journalist, Duncan Hamilton, in his memoir of Brian Clough, Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, “Red Smith, the best sports writer of his generation and most others, believed that “sport is life” – and I wouldn’t disagree. It can move people to rapture, like a glorious spring day. It can persuade people to identify with it, and with those who participate in it, in a way that few other things can. It matters. It stays with us like the characters from a great novel.”

But he doesn’t buy the idea that football fans are finding a release for their transcendent longings when they sit down in front of the box with a beer and a bowl of nachos:

Football has also acquired a metaphysical dimension in the contemporary mind. It has become a cliche to say that as “the Sea of Faith” began “its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” so football filled the spiritual void and provided religious consolation. According to the late Catalan writer, Manuel Vazquez Montalban, football is “a post modern religion, in that it is perfectly in tune with the commercial needs of mankind, intrinsically linked to business and consumerism. Its cathedrals are stadiums, its gods footballers, its faithful the millions of fans who not only participate in this ritual every matchday, but practise their faith on a daily basis, thinking about and reflecting on the deeds of their gods.”

This kind of idea and language is culturally popular, but it is also fundamentally flawed and excessive. Football’s horizons remain narrow and earthbound, whereas religion seeks that which is transcendent and ministers the grace for people to break free from the gravitational pull of earthly powers to seek the heavens. Football is no religion.

But football can be religious. Players making the sign of the cross as they come out onto a pitch. Players gesturing to heaven and some higher power when they score a goal. The Brazilian, Kaká (currently playing for Real Madrid) famously removing his jersey to reveal an “I Belong to Jesus” t-shirt and using the final whistle as a call to prayer. “God Is Faithful” is stitched onto the tongues of his boots and he persuaded teammates to reveal “Jesus Loves You” t-shirts in the postmatch celebration following Brazil’s 4–1 win over Argentina in the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup final. Kaká is evangelical about his faith. He lives on a win and a prayer.

What does this link between football and religion tell us? Exaggerating the importance of this link can only leads to skewed judgements. For every footballer with religious leanings, there will be countless others who simply enjoy the rituals of the changing room and the superstitious charms that they hope will bring them victory. As with any group of people, some will be religious, some nominally or culturally so and some not at all. If there is anything to learn from such links, it is that football has acquired a defining role in our cultural behaviour and attitudes. These coming weeks in South Africa are about to prove that.

I’m not sure about this critique of ‘football as religion’. Religion is defined in terms of the search for a transcendent meaning, for whatever might take you beyond the limitations of earthly life. But if you see religion instead as a quest for ultimate meaning, a commitment to a goal that drives and defines your life, then it seems clear that this can be found any number of non-transcendent pursuits – including football. It may be that the pursuit at hand is ‘ultimately not ultimate’ (forgive the awkward phrase), but like any idol it can act in the present frame of reference as a thing of religious significance.

I must go back and read Nick Hornby’s fabulous Fever Pitch, which convinced me at the time that football is indeed a modern substitute for religion, at least sociologically and psychologically – even if the transcendent longings are not ultimately fulfilled.

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There was lots of talk last week about football and morality, and the old question of whether sporting heroes need to be perfect role models when they are off the pitch and back in the real world. It brought to mind a much more interesting question raised by Simon Barnes as he was looking over the sporting scandals that erupted last year: when does a cheat become a ‘gate’? When, in other words, do the failures and weaknesses of individuals morph into an institutional conspiracy that merits the suffix ‘-gate’?

Watergate Complex from TR Bridge by dbking.

The original Watergate complex

For me, the interest lies not only in the analysis of modern sport, but in the way it illustrates how corruption can grow within any community or institution — if the pressures are strong enough, and if the individuals involved are without firm moral principles.

When does a cheat become a gate? It’s the most important question of the sporting year. There’ve been an awful lot of cheats in the course of the past 12 months, but only three gates. All the same, it is three more gates than sport needs. Liegate was followed by Bloodgate which was followed by Crashgate. When taken together, they ask a series of devastating questions about sport.

Cheats are much less important. The affair of Thierry Henry’s handball didn’t become Handgate or Henrygate, because it didn’t have the stuff a gate needs. It was a flagrant piece of cheating, but it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time. The only reason it gained such notoriety was because the consequences were greater: Henry’s balloon-bipping double-tap meant that France, rather than Ireland, qualified for the World Cup finals in South Africa next year.

No one within the sport condemned Henry for his lack of morals. Everyone took that for granted. No, the problem was felt to be one of officiating. We can’t expect players to be honest, so we must do something about catching them at it. But then Fifa decided that football was a better game when cheats are given a fair run, and so we move on…

Bloodgate had elements of farce. Harlequins were playing Leinster in a Heineken Cup quarter-final. It was an ultra-tight game of rugby, and they wanted to bring on a talented kicker, Nick Evans, to go for a dropped goal. Alas, they had already used all the tactical replacements they were allowed. So they made a substitution instead. This is permitted in the event of a blood injury — wise precaution in these Aids-conscious times. Evans came on, had his chance for a dropped goal, but missed.

Harlequins were able to make this substitution because Tom Williams used a capsule of fake blood (piquant detail: it was bought in a joke shop near Clapham Junction) to simulate the injury. It was given to him by his team management. He was instructed to burst it and fake an injury. Subsequently, Williams was cut in the mouth with a scalpel to aid conviction.

All this was rumbled. The cover-up was uncovered. Williams decided to come clean. The Harlequins director of rugby, Dean Richards, was banned from the sport for three years, the club were fined £258,000…

In all three of these events, a request — or a demand — for cheating came from people who held positions of authority. This wasn’t a bit of casual skulduggery, this was organised. This was cold-blooded. This was cheating as a matter of official policy.

This is not a crime of passion, this was premeditated plotting. And that changes everything. It’s not naughty boys cheating during the exam, it’s the school-teachers supplying the crib-sheets. The teachers are not just helping their boys to get a result, they are destroying the examination system.

You can argue whether or not that is a good thing — you can’t argue that it is destructive. The system that McLaren, Harlequins and Renault are destroying is called sport.

This kind of organised cheating not only destroys the spectacle of sport, it destroys the meaning of sport. Why watch the races, if every race is fixed?

Sport can’t exist without faith. We know that modern athletes will cheat in hot blood. That’s disappointing, but we are learning to live with it. But when we know that cheating is also fixed, authorised, formalised and institutionalised, our faith is broken. Institutional cheating is not just a scandal. It is the gate to sport’s grave.

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Barcelona - Supercopa 2009 - Thierry Henry by boldorak2208.What’s the difference between an outright cheat and someone who tries to push the boundaries without being caught? This is the moral debate raging after Thierry Henry’s handball gave France their win against Ireland in the world cut playoff game on Wednesday. [The photo is Henry playing for Barcelona.] The story has moved from the back pages to the news and editorial sections, with politicians and pundits weighing in. Perhaps this moral questioning is heightened by the MPs’ expenses scandal and the collapse of trust in the financial sector.

Is Henry a cheat? He has confessed to handling the ball, but claims it was an instinctive reaction in the heat of the moment. So if cheating means consciously breaking the rules and trying to get away with it, then it’s grey. We are into a debate about whether we are responsible for our instinctive reactions, and whether it is the job of the footballer to referee himself.

In some areas of life the fact of not being caught is enough to make something acceptable. The classic example is the card game ‘cheat’, where you have to put down as many cards as possible, telling your competitors which cards are in this hidden pile, and hoping that they won’t call your bluff and catch you out. The very point of the game is to get away with as much as possible.

But say you are playing poker, and you hide an extra ace up your sleeve and use it to your advantange. If this comes to light after the game you’ll be disgraced, have your winnings taken back, and be branded a cheat and a liar. No-one will think you clever or audacious. Poker, despite the deceptions and subterfuge, is an honest game. The same is true in golf, if you ‘accidentally’ kick your ball into a better position without anyone seeing it; or in cricket, if you tamper with the ball illegally.

Football is grey. Diving in the penalty area and deliberately handling the ball are generally considered immoral – like cheating at poker. But trying to edge past the defender against the offside trap and getting away with it is considered legitimate – if it goes unseen. No-one really expects a striker to put his hands up after a goal and say ‘sorry ref, I was six inches behind the last defender, but unfortunately the linesman didn’t spot it’.

The problem in politics and business and finance, and in much of contemporary social life, is that more and more people think they are playing ‘cheat’ instead of poker or golf. There is no ‘inner accounting’ – to the idea of sportsmanship, or to the voice of conscience, or simply to one’s own integrity. There is only the ‘outer’ accountability of whether we get caught or not. There has always been dishonesty, but the question now is whether this dishonesty becomes so built into the culture that we become unaware of what we have lost. [See Henry Winter’s article in the Telegraph for an example of righteous indignation at Henry’s behaviour; and see the comments below the article for the view that he was just playing a tough game and doing all he could to bring his team to victory.]

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