21 January 2015

THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CHOKING: WHAT IT IS AND HOW TO MANAGE IT

Daniel Gallan

What is choking and how can it be fixed? Tim Goodenough, Meta-Coach, mental skills expert and author of multiple books including the best-selling “In the Zone with South Africa’s Sports Heroes”, chats to CONQA Sport on identifying the choke, his three steps to finding a solution, and the Proteas chances at the upcoming World Cup.

AB de Villiers celebrates his record breaking hundred in the second ODI against the West Indies at the Wanderer's Stadium in Johannesburg January 18 2015. Picture supplied by Action Images. Photographer Siphiwe Sibeko

AB de Villiers celebrates his record breaking hundred in the second ODI against the West Indies at the Wanderer's Stadium in Johannesburg January 18 2015. Picture supplied by Action Images. Photographer Siphiwe Sibeko

What is a choke?

The cricketing world is still reacting to AB de Villiers’ record breaking knock at the Wanderer’s last Sunday (17 January 2015) . Former England captain Michael Vaughan called de Villiers “the definition of a cricketing genius” with Adam Gilchrist stating that the South African captain is the “most valuable cricketer on the planet.”

Every swashbuckling shot was met with awe and adulation from the frothing Johannesburg faithful and when he finally walked off, with his bat raised and helmet aloft, not one person who had witnessed the exhibition was left sitting.

Though, not long after he had departed and South Africa had posted their highest ever ODI total, a rumble began to emanate from those sitting around me on the sun kissed and beer soaked wooden benches. Like a cancer, the dreaded ‘C’ word had started to spread.

“Well, it’s all well and good doing this now, but let’s see him and Hashim Amla do this at the World Cup,” said one expert behind me. 

“This game doesn’t mean anything. It only counts if we don’t choke in Australia next month,” chimed in another, as if what de Villiers had just accomplished could fall short of this pundit’s lofty expectations.

But, it must be said, it’s a fair statement to make. Perhaps these wooden benched connoisseurs have a point; much as it pains us to admit. This game, despite the records, counts for very little other than confirming that we possess the world’s greatest cricketer. Our trophy cabinet is still one World Cup trophy short and until that void has been filled, the tag “choker” will follow the Proteas wherever they go, no matter what they achieve. 

In order to fully grasp the concept of choking, how we can address it as supporters, and how the Proteas can overcome it, a definition is needed.

“Choking is when an athlete or team loses a game that they were winning comfortably or an athlete or team suffers a severe and uncharacteristic drop in performance under pressure,” says Tim Goodenough, a certified Meta-Coach with vast experience working with professional athletes. Goodenough has worked with the Sharks rugby team as well as the Irish and South African men’s and women’s hockey teams and his input and effort with the u19 SA Cricket side contributed to them becoming the first cricket team from this country to win a World Cup.

“When we choke there is a shift in focus from the ‘now’,” Goodenough adds. “There is a jump out of the moment into the future where the athlete is projecting either a win or a loss. Sometimes when you jump to the future you can let the past affect you.”

Former South African captain Shaun Pollock is left distraught as his team fail to qualify for the next round during the 2003 World Cup on home soil. The Proteas drew the match against Sri Lanka in Durban after they miscalculated the amount of runs needed for victory. Picture supplied by Action Images. Photographer Mike Hutchings

Golfers call it the ‘yips’. Hands get stiff, arms and shoulders feel sluggish, feet get heavy, your head can’t stay still, your stomach is in knots and all your cloudy brain can focus on is not destroying the hopes and dreams of the millions watching your every move. Sounds stressful right? That’s because when an athlete starts to choke, his body goes in to flight/fight mode. The athlete is triggered to either dread the loss or be so inundated with the pressures of winning that his body and mind resort to a primal state. Hardly a place to be in when you need seven an over with only two wickets left in a semi-final. 

The pathogens for this contagious disease are not transmitted by hugging or sharing food with a Protea, so do go wish them luck at their next home game. No, this malady is airborne – just seeing someone else go through it can impact you and your mental state. Goodenough explains that witnessing teammates in the middle going through an obvious choke can heap pressure on a change room. He describes a mood of “impending doom or worry” that can grip a team and move them from jovial banter, to tense silence.

Now that we’ve diagnosed the problem, how do we go about remedying this seemingly incurable situation? Goodenough prescribes a three step method.

Former South African captain Shaun Pollock is left distraught as his team fail to qualify for the next round during the 2003 World Cup on home soil. The Proteas drew the match against Sri Lanka in Durban after they miscalculated the amount of runs needed for victory. Picture supplied by Action Images. Photographer Mike Hutchings

Former South African captain Shaun Pollock is left distraught as his team fail to qualify for the next round during the 2003 World Cup on home soil. The Proteas drew the match against Sri Lanka in Durban after they miscalculated the amount of runs needed for victory. Picture supplied by Action Images. Photographer Mike Hutchings

Laughter is the best medicine

“The first step to solving choking is to have an awareness that you are emotionally in a downward spiral and that you need to refocus.” This downward spiral comes before the choke. The choke is at the bottom of that spiral and so identifying the triggers that lead to the bottom can go a long way to rectifying the situation. But, the individual on the downward spiral is often unaware that he is on it and needs to be surprised out of it. You could use an aggressive approach and yell and scream, but this has a low return rate. Too often coaches use a hard line in sport and all they do is build another wall for the athlete to overcome. Ever heard someone say “just calm down” when you’re angry? Same thing.

“You need to focus on breaking the negative mood first before you can refocus on what positives need to be done,” explains Goodenough. “The most effective way to rebalance the focus is to use humour. A great example of this was South Africa’s ‘438 game’ against Australia (5th ODI at the Wanderer’s, 2006) when the bowlers got cleaned up. There was this impending sense of doom in the South African change room. In that moment, Jacques Kallis turned to the rest of the team and said, “Well boys, the bowlers have done their job, now it’s time for the batsmen.” That surprise was enough to get the team out of the downward spiral. It’s my opinion that if he hadn’t made that joke, the likelihood of us coming back would have been greatly reduced.”

Goodenough recommends coaches and captains learn a few jokes well before game day, “the cornier the better". Breaks in tension allow a shift of focus. Only once that break has happened, can you make something positive happen. 

Getting used to pressure

In training, the US Navy SEALs undergo rigorous tests to develop their mental and physical condition. Their bodies and minds are tested to the absolute limit because an untrained Navy SEAL is a dangerous animal who could put untold lives at risk. They are conditioned to handle any situation because they have faced so many incredibly tough and challenging circumstances in training, and as such learn how to first cope and then to eventually be focused and effective in extreme situations like combat.

“The second step for dealing with choking is called acclimatisation,” continues Goodenough. “Special Forces teams consistently increase levels of intensity in their training. It’s the ‘cooking-frogs-in-hot-water’ approach. Each drill or challenge gets progressively harder until the challenge is at such a high level that anyone who passes that level can directly transfer that skillset to extreme, real life situations. Sports teams try and emulate that when they up the ante in practice.  They try to create more pressure in training than would be faced in a match. The steps of progression are incredibly important. Many coaches make the mistake of making it too difficult too soon. The trick is each step must never be too easy or too difficult. Once a step is achieved at a reasonable level, it’s time to increase the challenge again.”

Typically, extra fitness is used as a consequence of failure in order to create heightened stress in training. In order to be productive however, buy-in in the squad needs to be achieved. This is established by setting up rewards and consequences. In drills, winning teams earn prizes and losing teams pay a cost. This creates banter and fun during training sessions. 

Nothing will compare to the consequence of losing a knockout game for your country, but if you can create, hold, and master increasing levels of stress that you create internally, that skillset will stand you in good stead when the external stress of the big day arrives.

Tiger Woods, after a long training session, would line up 6 foot putts and attempt to sink 100 in a row. If he missed one he would start again. The kind of pressure he put on himself was immense. Imagine facing putt number 98 for the third time? He created a level of personal accountability and as such was able to tap in to that whenever he needed to make that same putt at a Major. 

Identifying triggers and knowing how to release them

South Africa has never won a World Cup knockout game. That is a striking statistic and although not all of those losses were the result of chokes, many were. Allan Donald dropped his bat in 1999, Shaun Pollock couldn’t count in 2003, Jacob Oram suddenly became unplayable in 2011; these are the three standout chokes and yet all of the knockout losses hurt with perhaps the 1992 semi-final loss to England being the one case where our boys couldn’t have done anything.

But each choke has been different. The individuals have been different. Can we really lump all these shortcoming together under one theme?

“The most important step when dealing with choking is understanding the triggers behind the choking for the individual and the team,” Goodenough says. “Reasons for choking are not universal. Every athlete and team will have their own mix of common and unique fears and worries that contribute to choking. You need to address the individual stuff, such as a fear or anxiety about failing personally, as well as the fears and anxieties shared amongst the team.” Goodenough prefers to resolve the individual mental blocks first, and then moves on to see what team blocks are left to focus on afterwards.

There is a concept called ‘stereotype threat’ which could be the key to understanding choking on an individual as well as a team level. When there is a group (or individual) that has a negative association or a negative stereotype (such as the Proteas have with choking), it can affect your ability to perform even if you do not personally hold those beliefs about yourself.  When we asked Goodenough if choking was real, he said the point was moot. It doesn’t matter if this abstract concept (for choking is completely abstract) is real. What matters is the weight that is given to it by the media and fans. The weight the players themselves give to it is also important. A player who has personally never choked can be crippled by the threat of it because he believes it to be real. 

When Goodenough was working with the u19 Cricket team that won the World Cup last year, the fear and anxiety of repeating history and choking came up in a team session. Despite the fact that none of these players, much like the current senior squad, had ever choked themselves. By using a process that Goodenough has developed called Scanning, the players were able to identify and remove what triggers they had, and address any fears or anxieties which might have led to choking. This Scanning process could then be repeated if any new fears or anxieties arose.

If you talk about choking and remove individual and team doubts, worries, and concerns, you effectively disable the impact of choking, and of stereotype threat. Acclimatisation will help develop the mental skills further and if you develop in that combined way over time, you probably won’t have to use the corny jokes to help stop the downward spiral. You’ll just be using them to have a laugh with your team.

Can we do it?

The Proteas did not always hold claim to being the world’s greatest chokers. It wasn’t long ago that the mighty All Blacks from New Zealand were crippled by fears of choking. It was only a narrow, and some would say fortunate, win in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final against France that shed them of their unwanted label. 

Choking is so ingrained in our association with our national cricket side that a trophy might be the only solution. Fairness in South African sport is not something the media and public are well versed in. We lambast our sporting icons at every opportunity and it is this negative association that perpetuates the notion of choking. 

The good news for the Proteas according to Goodenough is that, “Paddy Upton, one of the best around has worked with the squad for long periods and I would argue at the recent 20/20 World Cup (Bangladesh, 2014) we didn’t choke, we just got beaten by an Indian team playing better on the day.  More recently Henning Gericke, who assisted the Springboks wining the Rugby World Cup in 2007, has been involved in working with the squad prior to the World Cup. We have top mental coaches in South Africa and strong leadership and experience within the team. I am looking forward to cheering our boys on, and hope we all rally behind the team to have a quality tournament.”

We’ll leave you with a quote from Sian Beilock from her book “Choke” where she discusses choking in great detail:

“Interestingly, when stereotyped in this way, people don’t perform badly because of some inherent inferior ability, but because they are aware of how they should perform. Even more dangerous is that the performances don’t have to endorse the stereotypes themselves; they just have to think others believe in it.”

Judging by the heroics of de Villiers and Amla, as well as countless examples of our cricketers over the past few years, no one can doubt the ability and skill that they possess. Perhaps what they need is a belief that they can go out and end the curse and break the chokers tag that has haunted them since 1992. Perhaps what they need is a little belief from us. 

tim-goodenough-conqa-sport

 

Tim Goodenough is a Certified Meta-Coach and holds a trainers qualification in both NLP and Neuro-Semantics. He is a multi-published author with vast experience working with top athletes and professionals around the world. Keep an eye on all that Tim is doing at http://www.coachingunity.co.za/

@TimGoodenoughZA

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