In all sports, a player’s performance will fluctuate. Sometimes we perform a bit better than normal, and sometimes a bit worse. This is normal and inescapable - even the greats have bad days. But there is a phenomenon that occurs under perceived pressure that can disrupt performance so dramatically and suddenly, it is referred to by many as choking.
Choking typically refers to performance that is much worse than expected given a player’s skill level, and occurs when incentives for maximum performance are at a maximum. In other words, choking happens when performance matters the most.
Choking can be sudden, for example being dismissed for golden duck facing a delivery that would normally be quite comfortable to deal with. Choking can also last for a while, for example bowling no ball after no ball throughout an entire over.
Why does choking occur?
Thinking too much - Paralysis by Analysis
Psychologists have recognized for a long time that one of the main reasons athletes choke is because they over-think the situation and more specifically over-think skill execution.
As skilled performers, elite cricketers have trained very hard to build and cement core skills into their games. They repeat their skills so much that, when in the heat of competition, they have the technical skills to produce complex skills with relative ease. Indeed, many elite players can execute their skills automatically – as if they are on autopilot.
Occasionally, something happens to players when under pressure. Instead of letting their skills flow naturally, they start to think too much about their skills, and spend vital mental resources and energy trying to control the little parts that make up a particular skill (e.g., grip, stance, pick-up). Victory is so important, but in demanding games victory it is under threat, that many players respond by taking extra care to execute their skills and analyze their execution to make sure it is correct. Herein lies the problem.
Once a skill is well learned, there is no need to think about the little parts that make the skill happen. By doing so, skill execution can actually get worse! By bringing well learned (implicit) skill under conscious control, players are drawing on explicit knowledge that disrupts the mechanics of the skill. Explicit knowledge may include exact foot movements, body positioning, the timing of a stroke, and even a batsman’s hand position on the bat. A player can go from a normal smooth and natural ground stroke, to an uncoordinated swing at the ball. The player has ultimately clogged their brain up and begun to play like a novice – as they now suffer from paralysis by analysis!
Don’t mess up
As you pad-up and prepare to bat, you feel nervous. This is an important game. Your coach says three simple words to you, words that have been the curse of many elite players: “Don’t mess up.”
These words ring and echo in your mind as you walk out of the pavilion to the crease, “Don’t mess up, whatever you do don’t get out.” As you step into the crease for the first ball you remind yourself, “Don’t let the moment get you, whatever you do don’t mess up.”
Then relative silence as the bowler takes his run up. The next sound you hear are the cheers of your opponents and your inner voice asking “What happened?”
So what did happen? Surely in this situation - telling yourself not to get out is a good plan? It seems obvious; telling yourself not to get out will surely reduce the likelihood of getting out.
Unfortunately, psychologists have discovered that the exact opposite is true: telling yourself not to do something increases the likelihood of doing it. Try it now. Don’t think of a white bear. Whatever you do don’t think of a white bear. Chances are you are now thinking about what I told you not to think about. So why does this happen? Essentially, when a player’s mind is full of worry, when they are feeling pressurized, so-called ironic processes take over, leading to them think and act in ways that are directly opposite to their goals.
How can choking be avoided? A challenge strategy
Robust self-confidence: when approaching important situations it is key for players to think back to times when they have done well and performed in similar circumstances. Players should focus on what they need to do to play well (e.g., hitting the gaps in the field, defending their wicket strongly, hitting the crease hard, watching the ball).
Control: Players should focus on what they can control (effort, positivity, intent) and only the things they need to do to play well.
Approach focus: Players should regard up and coming matches as opportunities to show how good they are and think of demanding situations as challenges to be overcome. Players should learn to enjoy and be challenged by competition rather than feel afraid and threatened. The best players enjoy pressure and learn to recognize that playing in big games is one of the reasons why they invest so much effort.
By Dr Jamie Barker and Dr Martin Turner, Sport Psychologists specialising in cricket and contributors to The Psychology of Cricket: Developing Mental Toughness by Dr. Stewart Cotterill and Dr. Jamie Barker.