When it is not just about the game: Surprising facets of sports psychology
Once in a while you come across an article, book or an interview with a person who makes a lot of sense, and you sit back and wonder "Wow, this stuff is new, where can I read more from him". Malcolm Gladwell is one of those guys. He wrote a book "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference" I've read an interview with this guy and articles by him. I am not paraphrasing his words, because they are beautifully written. If you like what u read, go buy the book :)
One of the things that always interests me in sports is how extraordinarily sensitive athletic performance is to social expectations. My favorite example is the four-minute mile. For years, no one even comes close. Then Roger Bannister breaks the record in 1954, and suddenly, everyone can break four minutes. Did runners get "better" in 1954? Not really. They simply became aware that running four minutes was possible. Same thing with baseball players and the Dominican Republic. Dominicans are not "better" infielders than everyone else. But if you are a nine-year-old kid playing in San Pedro de Macoris, you know that it's possible to be a major leaguer, in a way that the same kid growing up in Maine does not. When symbolic barriers are broken -- the first man from the Dominican Republic to make the majors, the first person to break four minutes -- the context in which we think of achievement changes dramatically.
The heart-wrenching part of most sports is when a player or team is at the verge of achieving a very important milestone and they choke/panic. The best example would be that of Novotna against Graff in the 93 Wimbledon finals.
Novotna was leading 4-1 and serving at 40-30. The stands at Center Court were packed and the Duke and Duchess of Kent were watching with rapt attention. Novotna was poised and confident, her blond hair held back with a headband-and then something happened. She served the ball straight into the net. She stopped and steadied herself for the second serve, but this time it was worse. Double fault. On the next point, she was slow to react to a high shot by Graf, and badly missed on a forehand volley. At game point, she hit an overhead straight into the net. Instead of 5-1, it was now 4-2. Graf won the next game. Novotna wasn't tossing the ball high enough. Her head was down. Her movements had slowed markedly. She double-faulted three times!. 4-4.
Novotna was visibly agitated now; She talked to herself under her breath. Graf took the game at love; Novotna, moving as if in slow motion, did not win a single point: 5-4, Graf. It was now her turn to serve. She missed a routine volley wide, shook her head, talked to herself. She faulted, mis-hit, mis-timed and seemed at a loss. She looked like a beginner again. She was crumbling under pressure, but exactly why was as baffling to her as it was to all those looking on. Isn't pressure supposed to bring out the best in us? We try harder. We concentrate harder. We get a boost of adrenaline. So what was happening to her?
The end was symbolic of the moment; Novotna hit a shallow lob to Graf, and, mercifully, it was over. At the awards ceremony, the Duchess of Kent handed Novotna the runner-up's trophy, a small silver plate, and whispered something in her ear, and what Novotna had done finally caught up with her. The Duchess reached up and pulled her head down onto her shoulder, and Novotna started to sob.
Human beings sometimes falter under pressure. Pilots crash and divers drown. Under the glare of competition, basketball players cannot find the basket and golfers cannot find the pin. When that happens, we say variously that people have "panicked" or, to use the sports colloquialism, "choked." But what do those words mean? To choke or panic is considered to be as bad as to quit. But are all forms of failure equal?
We have two different ways of "knowing" how to perform a physical task. The first is conscious knowledge. If I ask you how to use a can opener, you can tell me. The second is unconscious knowledge, which is the knowledge that we have that we can't really describe.
For example, if you gave me a picture of blank keyboard and asked me to write in appropriate letters in the right places, I'd have to think really hard before I could do that accurately. My conscious knowledge of a keyboard is pretty weak. But right now I'm typing at perhaps 40 words per minute, and I'm having absolutely no trouble finding the right letter on the keyboard without thinking at all.
That's my unconscious knowledge system at work, and in that mode I'm a great typist. These two systems are quite separate. And on tasks that we are good at -- like typing, in my case, or throwing a baseball in, say, Derek Jeter's case -- our unconscious systems are way better than our conscious system. But sometimes under pressure, we get forced out of unconscious mode. And what are we left with? We're left with painstakingly going over the keyboard, trying to remember what button goes with what letter. This is what choking is.
Panic is something else altogether. Consider the following account of a scuba-diving accident, recounted by Morphew, a human-factors specialist at NASA: "It was an open-water certification dive; I'd been diving for two weeks. This was my first time in the open ocean without the instructor. Just my buddy and I. We had to go about forty feet down, to the bottom of the ocean, and do an exercise where we took our regulators out of our mouth, picked up a spare one that we had on our vest, and practiced breathing out of the spare. My buddy did hers. Then it was my turn. I removed my regulator. I lifted up my secondary regulator. I put it in my mouth, exhaled, to clear the lines, and then I inhaled, and, to my surprise, it was water. I inhaled water. Then the hose that connected that mouthpiece to my tank, my air source, came unlatched and air from the hose came exploding into my face."
"Right away, my hand reached out for my partner's air supply, as if I was going to rip it out. It was without thought. It was a physiological response. My eyes are seeing my hand do something irresponsible. I'm fighting with myself. Don't do it. Then I searched my mind for what I could do. And nothing came to mind. All I could remember was one thing: If you can't take care of yourself, let your buddy take care of you. I let my hand fall back to my side, and I just stood there."
This is a textbook example of panic. In that moment, Morphew stopped thinking. She forgot that she had another source of air, one that worked perfectly well and that, moments before, she had taken out of her mouth. She forgot that her partner had a working air supply as well, which could easily be shared, and she forgot that grabbing her partner's regulator would imperil both of them. All she had was her most basic instinct: get air. Stress wipes out short-term memory. People with lots of experience tend not to panic, because when the stress suppresses their short- term memory they still have some residue of experience to draw on.
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.
How can we prepare ourselves against panic? By building up our knowledge of the situation thru practice. We would be at a stage when we wud have our mind programmed to handle unexpected circumstances in a calm collected way. How can we prepare against choking? According to studies conducted in this area, the best way is to practice under pressure.