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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Pressure points and performance: Choking and panic

Choking, panicking and other responses to pressure

Cricket is not a sport that we've done a great deal of analysis of here on The Science of Sport.  The irony is that the very first post we ever did, way back in April 2007, was the day of Cricket World Cup Final, which is currently on again in India.  That post, and maybe a few more on the marketing of the sport, represent the sum total of our cricket coverage (incidentally, cricket may be played seriously by only half a dozen countries, but it has one of the biggest player and fan bases of any sport, thanks to its huge popularity in India.  So powerful is the Indian "force" behind the sport that I once heard that the second largest supporter base for cricket is in the USA...thanks to the all the Indian immigrants!  Also, driven by the huge Indian market and its commercial clout, it is one of the wealthier and highest paying sports, at least for those fortunate enough to cash in on the 20-over format of the game)

South Africa - 5 out of 5, did they "choke"?

Cricket also gives us our lead-in to today's post, thanks to (yet another) South African failure to advance further in the 2011 World Cup.  SA lost to New Zealand yesterday, bringing to five a run of "failures" in World Cups.

Those of you who follow the sport, and everyone in South Africa, will be well aware of South Africa's reputation as perennial chokers.  Ever since the 1992 World Cup in Australia, South Africa have amplified the importance of the World Cup (on that occasion, it was rain that denied SA a chance), and every time, have fallen despite great expectations.

Part of the problem is that good performances between World Cups allow South Africans to build expectation to the point that we cannot possibly be beaten by another team unless we ourselves blow it!  It is the "You can't beat us unless we beat ourselves" mentality.  And the result is that when we don't succeed (and by success, you must understand we mean "win the whole tournament"), the post-mortem invariably falls on our 'choking' under pressure, because the underlying philosophy is that choking is when you lose games you should win (which, as we'll see, is not necessarily true).

Some of these failures have been agonizing for fans, most notably the failures of 1999, where dropped catches and run-outs against Australia only re-affirmed a growing perception that our cricketers were guaranteed to buckle under pressure. 

"Choking" up in lights

The latest failure is bound to produce the same response.  Everyone will speculate wildly on what  happened in Bangladesh yesterday, and the "choker" tag will be up in lights here in SA.  I know from my involvement with the SA Sevens team that such speculation almost always bears little resemblance to the truth.  Knowing what is going on in a dressing room over 4 weeks of a tournament, and during 7 hours of a match is impossible, and wild speculation usually INCLUDES the truth without being it!

So rather than add to opinion, I thought it would be a good opportunity to look at what choking really is.  The word is used so often that it's almost guaranteed to be misunderstood.  Just yesterday, within minutes of the defeat to New Zealand, expert analysis said that we had "choked and panicked".  The truth is that these two phenomena, both attributable to pressure, are polar opposites.

So let's take a look at what choking is, and how it differs from other failures under pressure.

Choking vs panic

Here is a great piece by Malcolm Gladwell on the "Art of Failure".  Regardless of your thoughts of Gladwell, this is a good summary, full of insight and explanation.  And for those in South Africa in particular, it would pay to get to understand what you're about to read about over the next few days!

Here are some quotes from the piece:
"Choking" sounds like a vague and all-encompassing term, yet it describes a very specific kind of failure.  Under conditions of stress..the explicit system sometimes takes over. That's what it means to choke.  Panic, in this sense, is the opposite of choking. Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart."
Sometimes the other team is just better (on the day)

So choking, a fascinating area of sports psychology and performance, is a very specific kind of failure, and to blame it for defeat (especially surprise defeat) is too convenient and easy to do.  It's an overused explanation, and while there is almost certainly an element of both choking and panic in the latest defeat, team sports in particular are too complex for blanket explanations like choking.

The same focus will be on New Zealand later this year, when they host the 2011 Rugby World Cup.  They too have been labeled as chokers because they are consistently the best team in the world, but have failed to win the knock-out games in the World Cup.  Have they choked every time?  Unlikely.  Sometimes, it's just that the other team are better on the day, better able to raise their game when it matters.

As for the real explanation for defeats like South Africa's yesterday, only those involved can say, and they must be honest and hard to do find them successfully.  If it was choking (and maybe it was, at least for some individuals on the team), then denying it doesn't help. 

But it also doesn't help to blanket blame choking for defeat.  The only exercise that is effective (again, this is in my experience from the SA Sevens setup) is that every single person must shoulder responsibility, ask themselves what they needed to do differently and then aim to address it.  Were the best decisions made? Was the team prepared optimally?  Were there problems for many months leading into the tournament that were glossed over deliberately, or ignored because it was inconvenient to confront them?  Difficult questions, but lessons learned in failure are often the best ones.  If you're prepared to learn them.