What’s the difference between the Springbok rugby team and a teabag? A teabag stays in a cup longer! There’s no shortage of jokes when our team disappoints, but only when you believe they have the capacity to win – so it’s a sort of back-handed compliment.
Any time a major sports team unexpectedly loses, there’s a lot of talk about “choking”. But, the Springboks definitely did not choke when losing to Japan. They were simply out-played on the day, by a team they and others had perhaps underestimated. Several other major teams in the Rugby World Cup have at times been accused of choking, but none of them appear to consistently display this pattern.
What do we mean by choking?
“Choking” is when an athlete or team fails to win a game or contest they’re widely expected to win, or when they fritter away a large lead and manage to lose against all expectations. Some individuals or teams become known as chokers when this happens regularly. To reverse the old cliché, it’s about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. It’s not just bad play; it’s when things fall apart.
Others, like Bafana Bafana, disappoint so routinely that they can hardly be said to choke: their performance is so uniformly dismal that nobody actually expects them to win. It’s the occasional, almost accidental victory that comes as a surprise, and we don’t really have a word for that.
Top sportsmen or teams have always had the odd disappointing performance, but the word “choking” only emerged about 50 years ago. With modern media we are able to watch sporting events around the world and form our own opinions. Our parents’ generation listened to sport on the radio and had to rely on the opinions of professional commentators. Nowadays we’re all armchair experts and feel that our favourite team has a duty to meet our expectations.
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In the olden days things were a lot simpler – people just went out and played sport, and maybe there would be a coach . . . Nowadays there are squads of doctors and physiotherapists to treat all sorts of injuries, real or imagined. There are coaches for every different aspect of performance and even sports psychologists, while teams get more neurotic than ever. I have yet to see convincing evidence that any of these “hangers-on” have any proven consistent benefits – they don’t seem able to prevent choking.
The psychology of choking
The psychology of choking is not well understood. If it were better understood it wouldn’t happen.
Choking a form of self-sabotage and self-defeat and has nothing to do with lack of competence or being overwhelmed by a superior opponent.
Some claim choking is caused by thinking too much. Instead of playing “instinctively”, the athlete gets nervous and self-conscious and tries too hard not to make mistakes, which is in itself a mistake. They try too hard, and lose the grace of their natural, practiced talent.
Most of us have found, when learning new skills like driving, that initially the actions have to be repeated consciously and deliberately. With practice, they become second nature and need little conscious effort to perform, leaving our minds free to think about other matters.
Brain-wave studies have shown that experienced athletes enter "the zone", which is a tranquil, meditative state of mind, enabling them to ignore any distractions in the outside world, to let everything flow and perform at peak levels. However, if they start thinking about what they're doing, they break the flow and things become fragmented and start falling apart. If someone asks them to pay particular attention to some aspect of their performance, they mess up. When they begin second-guessing their instincts, they fail.
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The problem includes "spectatoring", i.e. watching yourself and worrying about what the crowd, team-mates or others are thinking of your performance. Indeed, too much noise from supporters is usually unhelpful, and adds to self-consciousness and the risk of errors.
Choking by numbers
With each error the next one becomes more likely, increasing the stress. It’s not anxiety alone, but anxiety combined with self-consciousness that causes chokes – amplified by the importance and significance of the occasion, and the consequences of failure.
Sometimes repeating empty slogans can help – not because they're true or intrinsically helpful, but because concentrating on them directs us away from damaging thoughts. Like a mantra, even a meaningless phrase could help. Positive self-talk can also serve to drown out thoughts that may “throw a spanner in the works”. The body knows what to do, and should just be allowed to do it.
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The more you tell sportsmen not to choke, the more likely they are to do it. The more they insist that they won’t choke, the more likely it becomes. Thinking you may lose control makes you lose control. It’s not panic. In panic you have no idea what to do. In choking you know exactly what to do – you’ve often done it before – you just don't do it.
The choker worries about things they cannot control, and wastes effort trying to control them. Once you’ve choked, you never know when it might happen again, increasing the risk.
The greatest athlete will occasionally err. No problem; it happens. But if they focus on this failure and start doubting their abilities, they will fail again. Instead, one needs to focus only on the present moment and ignore any negative thoughts that may arise.
Seemingly superstitious behaviour
In driving, in sport, and in so many other skills, we practice until our actions become automatic, something we perform efficiently without having to think about. But as soon as you start thinking about each step, you become clumsy and everything slows down. This happens when you want to win far too much.
So, being able to cool down when needed, is an essential skill. This explains some of the seemingly superstitious behaviour we see, for instance in tennis players. Watch what they do during moments of inactivity: they bounce the ball, check the strings on their racquet etc. Part of it is to exert conspicuous control over things you can wholly control, even if they don’t matter at all, taking control of your emotions, distracting you from worrying about the important things you can’t control.
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This becomes especially important when there’s been a bad call, and you need to cool down and lose the anger.
The principle is best illustrated by Rafael Nadal, who has an obsessive routine with around 12 components, including careful placement of his water bottles. He also manages somehow to constantly give himself a “wedgie”, and keeps plucking at his pants. Nadal has recently admitted to lasting anxiety after errors during a match, and no longer controlling his emotions as he once did.
He says he is confident he can overcome this problem entirely on his own without professional help. However, I fear that this brilliant and scintillating player may become a more persistent choker if he insists on handling the problem entirely on his own.
Are the gulls bothering our boys?
And so we return to rugby, the Springboks and the need to avoid choking. They definitely won’t be helped by the ridiculous British newspaper reports that they are blaming defeat on aggressive seagulls, dive-bombing their practice grounds, and splattering their droppings everywhere. Apparently a hawk called George was brought in to chase away the gulls. Interestingly, the Wallabies and All Blacks who used the facilities on previous occasions had no issue with the seagulls.
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Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.