Understand Footy

The choke is in!

Inside Football,
February 27, 2013

Choking is a real phenomenon in every sport at every level, in virtually every game.
You see it in golf, tennis, basketball, football – every competitive pursuit. Actually, it’s really an integral part of sport.
It’s just that most of the time, because the act of choking is not as dramatic or obvious to observers as Jana Novotna’s Wimbledon implosion of 1993, or Sam Stosur’s Australian Open exits of recent times, or Greg Norman’s disasters when leading major golf tournaments, we don’t notice it going on.
Or we mistake it for something else, such as panicking.
Make no mistake, choking happens in football; in fact, it happens constantly within games and more obviously and dramatically at the end of them.
The art of winning requires players to handle the natural tendency to choke.
Last season Richmond choked up a good half a dozen games when in sight of victory. And it was far from alone in that.
You can mount a strong case that Hawthorn as a collective choked in the last week of September.
I saw at least two cases of it in Round 1 of the NAB Cup: Richmond against North Melbourne, and GWS against Carlton – not nearly as spectacular as some of those high-stakes examples, of course, but still remarkable when you consider how little rides on the outcome of these NAB Cup games.
What is choking exactly?
It’s the sudden loss of an ability to perform a physical act – usually a skill that one has learned and practised until it is second nature.
It happens when leading a contest – or with victory so close you can taste it. All you need to do is perform that simple skill – something you have done many times, with aplomb. But suddenly your body fails you. You fluff it. Drop the World Cup.
Your short pass falls short. The easy mark bounces off your chest. You hook the shot for goal.
(At the same time, your opponent’s loss aversion is maximised, so they are playing aggressive, risk-taking football, which only heightens your own anxiety.)
The term choking is thought to trace back to a medieval test for witches. A woman thus accused was required to swallow communion water; if unable to do so she would be sentenced to death. The stress of being accused and tested in this way caused many a “witch” to lose the ability to swallow.
Why does it happen? The best way to explain that is via a study just completed at the California Institute of Technology, the results of which have been published in
Neuron, the journal of the Biophysical Society.
It demonstrated that choking was a measurable phenomenon influenced mostly by the size of the prize at stake.
The bigger the prize – in this case a financial incentive – the more likely a participant was to choke when close to securing it.
Here’s what they did.
A group of students learned a computer game skill: a deft manoeuvre in which participants had to control a virtual object by moving an index finger with a tracking device attached.
They were asked to place the virtual object into a target within two seconds. The researchers controlled for individual aptitude by customising the size of the target until all students could perform the skill with the same success rate.
Then the students were offered a cash incentive of $10 to repeat the skill within the two-second limit. Almost all achieved this.
The researchers gradually increased the prize, and with greater motivation, performance increased accordingly – but only up to a point. When the cash prize jumped to $100, almost every participant failed!
The dexterity required of their fingers suddenly eluded them. The students choked.
Researchers repeated the experiment hundreds of times, with varying cash prizes (US universities must have plenty of coin for research!) and found that every participant had a threshold amount at which they lost their nerve. It was an individual thing.
What was going on? Simply that when the prize increased, participants began to think of it as a gain before they started. They were beginning to account for it as theirs.
Just one little move and the prize is mine! This was mimicking the dying seconds of a game – when you’re leading and desperate to not lose.
The research team did some other tests, mapping brain activity, among other things. They realised that a different part of the brain was active when players suddenly seemed conscious of what they had to gain, and that their physical dexterity declined markedly.
So one problem here is too much thinking! Motor skills require activity in different parts of the brain than cognitive thought.
Try performing a physical skill you do well by thinking through each part of the movement. It doesn’t work!
A secondary finding of this research was that the greater the person’s loss aversion – tested for separately – the more likely they were to choke. Another way of putting this is: the more you hate losing, the more you’ll tend to choke on the verge of winning.
Are you being reminded of an AFL team yet? I am.
Richmond last season choked week after week in big games as the following pattern repeated itself: trail early, fight back, hit the front, fail to hold off the opposition in a desperate finish, lose narrowly. That happened in at least six games.
It’s actually unfair to single out the Tigers, because every team chokes, constantly, but Richmond’s examples were spectacularly instructive.
Last season North Melbourne performed the classic football choke in coughing up a five-goal lead against Port Adelaide. Afterwards a devastated coach Brad Scott promised a forensic examination of the loss.
After some days of post mortem, he announced that he had found no evidence of a psychological problem but could identify a series of skill errors that led to Port Adelaide goals and accounted for the loss. Working on those skills would prevent a repeat.
He was mistaken. The errors were there, yes, but they happened for a reason. The circumstances of the game caused the Kangaroos players to tighten up trying to protect their lead against an adrenalin-charged opponent.
That is the problem for the leading team in all competitive sport (and actually at all times during games when leading; it’s just magnified at the end).
No amount of skill practice will insure against a recurrence.
Research confirms that choking affects “thinkers” more than those who can perform their skills without heed for the consequences – the “see ball, get ball” types. The more clearly you apprehend the consequences of your actions, the less instinctively you will play and the more prone you will be to choke.
Clearly the first thing a serial choker must practise is to remain completely “in the moment”, shutting out any thoughts of victory.
Any plan to defend the lead or ice the clock – such as by chipping the ball around with precise skills – is begging to come unstuck as not only does that rely on maintaining those skills, but it also concentrates players’ minds on the score.
At Richmond, Hardwick has achieved the aim he stated upon accepting the coaching job: he has a competitive team. It plays for the jumper and the fans. Those players care.
But this makes them loss averse and therefore prone to heart-breaking defeats. Some other heart-and-soul teams spring to mind, in recent and distant history.
As golfer Geoff Ogilvy once noted, you have to care, but must not care too much.
Hardwick must find ways to address not the Tigers’ physical skills but their psyches, for that inevitable moment when next they lead by a goal with three minutes to play.
On last weekend’s evidence, this remains a work in progress.
Until he does, the Tigers will remain the AFL’s prime exponents of the choke.