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Sports: Why we choke under pressure

About the author

Claudia is a writer, broadcaster and lecturer in psychology. She presents Health Check on BBC World Service every Wednesday and her new book is titled Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception.

If there are myths you’d like Claudia to bust in future columns, she’s on Twitter @claudiahammond.

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Why do sportspeople choke under pressure? (Getty Images)

The England football team are turning to a psychologist to stop them crashing out of tournaments at the penalty shoot-out stage. Could it work?

Sport plays funny tricks on the mind, and most teams have had their fair share of failures and moments they would rather forget. But in England mourning the failed plight of the country’s football team has almost become a national sport itself. They have been knocked out of six of their last 10 major tournaments via penalty shootouts, on two occasions to arch-rivals Germany.

Now they have a plan to try to stop the rot. They say they will use a psychiatrist to try to help calm their minds in preparation for taking penalties in the World Cup in Brazil this summer. Cynical Brits may scoff at the idea, and a lot of them have. But examining the evidence of the impact of the mind on sporting success suggests it could well work.

In many individual sports, such as tennis, psychologists have been employed for some time now to help top players deal with the pressure. But with a team game such as football, moments where everything rests of one player are more unusual, which might be why the psychological side has tended to be neglected. With individual sports this kind of mental toughness is part of the game, so what can team players learn from this?

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that performance anxiety is the biggest factor in penalty failures. Technically players know how to do it. Whether they can score when thousands are watching and their team’s victory depends on it, is another matter.

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England fans know that sinking feeling of their football side losing on penalties (Getty Images)

When the stakes are high, the biggest fear for any player is that they will choke. A skill they’ve practiced for years that usually comes easily to them suddenly seems hard. There are various theories about why choking happens. The psychologist Roy Baumeister proposed back in the 1980s that instead of working on auto-pilot and putting all those hours of training into practice, players shift to a conscious mode of thinking where they try too hard. In a series of experiments Baumeister had people play a tricky hand-held game which involves guiding a ball along a track between two metal rods in such a way that it falls into a particular hole. People did well until they were offered money for good results or knew that a competitor was watching. Then their performance diminished.

We do the same when we’ve been driving for years and then end up stalling and bunny-hopping along the road as soon as we try to show a learner driver how it’s done. Seasoned drivers go through the motions almost without thinking about it – it’s encoded in their implicit memory. But learners consciously monitor each step, like when to brake, indicate, etc. as they build the neural framework supporting the tasks. When drivers teach learners, they are forced to think through each step and switch from their implicit system to an explicit one. So in effect they are using the neural pathways they last used as a learner – hence the embarrassing stalling and bunny-hopping.

However, other researchers believe that choking involves some element of thinking that a prize is within grasp. When Jana Novotna seemed on course to beat Steffi Graf in the final set of the 1993 Wimbledon final, a double fault resulted in one of the most sudden and heartbreaking collapses Centre Court had ever witnessed. Sometimes we can want something too much. The thought of the reward becomes so overwhelming that over-activity in the basic reward pathways in the brain begins to impair our working memory – our ability to consciously hold information and procedures in mind temporarily.

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Jana Novotna may have choked in one Wimbledon final but she would eventually win the title years later (Getty Images)

At Cambridge University, participants lay in a brain scanner playing a computer game which involved chasing an artificial prey in the form of grey dot around a maze. One group had the chance to win 50p each time they caught up with the dot. The others got £5. Those offered the chance to win the bigger prize didn’t do better. Instead they missed turnings in the maze, failing to catch the dot as often as the people offered the smaller reward. This correlated with increased activity in the ventral-midbrain, an area of the brain associated with rewards, backing up the idea that the reward system becomes too active.

You can’t stop elite athletes from caring passionately about winning and losing, but you can calm their minds. It’s common for tennis players to learn to use between-points routines, where they make their mind a fresh slate for every point, regardless of the bad line call that’s just gone before. They have to put any idea of anger at the injustice out of their minds and start the next point afresh. The most noticeable example of this is Rafael Nadal’s on-court routine that features as many as 12 different steps. It might look like superstitious behaviour, but it gets him back into the right frame of mind. There are also all sorts of cognitive strategies that can be taught such as picturing previous successes at crucial moments or repeating positive statements to yourself.

It’s also important to note that failure doesn’t necessarily mean success will always be out of reach. Novotna eventually won the Wimbledon title five years later. And eight weeks after golfer Rory McIlroy spectacularly surrendered a lead in the final round of the 2011 US Masters in Augusta, Georgia, he headed into the last day of the US Open in a similar position. This time there were no slip-ups and tears, and he won by eight shots.

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Rafael Nadal’s on-court routine, including arranging his water bottles correctly, helps him achieve the right frame of mind (Getty Images)

Players are more likely to succeed when they believe they have some control over the situation. The problem with penalties is that footballers often think it’s all down to the goalkeeper. They could benefit from a similar mental routine to tennis players. Exeter University psychologists Greg Wood and Mark Wilson found that a routine where players learned to fix their gaze on a certain position increased players’ beliefs that they had some control over the situation and weren’t at the mercy of goalkeepers. They found that anxiety causes players to focus their gaze on the goalkeeper, rather than just inside the post, which then makes them more likely to kick it in the goalkeeper’s direction.

Players might be better off practicing telling their goalkeepers which way they’re going to kick the ball, according to the Exeter psychologists, and Professor Geir Jordet from the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences. If they practice this until they begin to believe that they have the ability to score – even when goalkeepers know which direction the ball will go – this increases the perception of control over the situation.

Jordet examined the film footage of almost 400 kicks from penalty shootouts during major tournaments. There was a big difference depending on a team’s history of penalties. If the team had won previously they were 85% likely to score, compared with only 65% when they’d lost. Yet team ability made little difference, suggesting it was the memory of the loss that was affecting them.

The final tip from the research is for players to take their time. Using the film footage Jordet timed exactly how long players took to place the ball on the penalty spot. Those who took less than a second scored 58% of the time, compared with 80% when they didn’t rush it and took longer than a second.

So the research would suggest that employing some of these psychological techniques could result in more successful penalties during the World Cup. But, then again, as the saying goes “football’s a funny old game”.

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