I’m too young to remember the 1993 Wimbledon Ladies’ Final, but watching it back is a painful reminder of how the human brain can, in certain conditions, self-destruct when it matters most. Jana Novotna was leading 4-1, serving at 40-30 in the final set, and was just five points away from winning her first major championship. She looked invincible; then something happened. Quiet filled the packed centre court while Novotna, dressed in white and pink, her striking blonde hair held back in a white headband, launched the ball in the air and arched her back. She served straight into the net. She steadied herself for the second serve, but this time it was even worse. Her legs suddenly looked limp as her arm bungled the ball about four yards long. Double fault. On the next point she was slow to react and hit a forehand volley that was so ugly it drew gasps of astonishment from the crowd, and on the next she fumbled a simple overhead. Instead of 5-1, it was 4-2. Her opponent, Steffi Graf, then served out quickly, 4-3. In her next service game, Novotna’s movements had become inexplicably cumbersome. She double-faulted once, twice, three times, 4-4. By now Novotna looked visibly distressed – jumping up and down, muttering under her breath, her eyes darting around the court. She lost the next game to love, and never threatened in the last, 4-6. From 4-1 up, in not much more than ten minutes, the Wimbledon Championship had vanished from her grasp. When the significance of what had happened hit home, Novotna broke down and wept on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent, who presented her with the runners-up plate. But what had happened? How, in the most important moment of her sporting life, and from appearing almost unbeatable, had Jana Novotna transformed into a player I could have given the run-around?
The explanation of what happened that day at Wimbledon was apparently simple; Novotna had choked. Was she suddenly overcome by self-doubt? Had her focus shifted from the match itself to the what-ifs of glory or a lifetime of regret? The record books are littered with high profile sporting chokes like this. The image of Jean van de Velde standing knee deep in water as he contemplated his fourth shot on the 18th hole at Carnoustie in 1999, where he needed only a double bogey six to become the first Frenchman to win the Open Championship since 1907, is still inextricably linked with my notion of bottling it. (He made triple bogey and subsequently lost the three-way play-off). But an explanation for these gut-wrenching travesties of justice requires more than just speculation around harmful thought processes in the form of pity or ridicule. Neither would it suffice to say simply that some people can handle pressure, and some can’t. It requires a scientific exploration which may help us to understand more about ourselves in such situations, and even our fellow countrymen. How can it be, for example, that English footballers, historically, have not been as technically proficient as some of their European counterparts and are so embarrassingly bad at penalty shootouts? Given that we are the same species and consequently have exactly the same physical and mental attributes from birth, is it just different training techniques? I don’t think so.
Human beings often falter under pressure, which is so infuriating because pressure usually means it’s something important to us – an interview, a test, or a sporting competition. Surely pressure should improve our performance – we try harder, we care more, we get a boost of adrenalin, and the blood flow to our brains and muscles increases. Yet it’s pressure that can still cause me to stutter and mumble like an incoherent jabbering idiot during interviews. I still can’t direct more than 50% of my attentional resources to the task at hand in any test. And when it really matters to me, and I mean really matters, I play pool like I’ve got early-onset Parkinson’s disease. Relatively speaking I’m still damn good (obviously), but when the pressure’s off I’m like a baby-faced Ronnie O’Sullivan. Nevertheless, the point remains. Sometimes, in the face of competition, basketballers just can’t find the basket, and golfers can’t find the pin. But what happens to our brains in these baffling instances?
Imagine for a second that you’re playing a computer game for the first time. In the game, you have a keyboard with four buttons, and a screen with four corresponding boxes. You are told that each time a dot appears in one of the boxes on the screen, you are to press the corresponding button on the keyboard. Now, imagine that you’re told that these dots will appear in a sequence. This knowledge will make your performance improve dramatically. You’ll pay close attention until you’ve learned the sequence, and then you’ll get faster and faster. This is what psychologists call explicit (conscious) learning. Now imagine that you weren’t told about the sequence. Your performance would still improve, but this time your learning would take place outside of awareness – what’s called implicit (unconscious) learning. These two learning systems are quite different, and are located in different regions of the brain. Learning to ride a bike is an implicit learning process – try explaining to someone how you learned to do it; it’s not easy. When you first try to learn something, like how to play tennis, it’s a very deliberate, conscious process, in which you think about the basic aspects of your technique. As you practise and improve, your implicit system starts to take over, and you hit the ball more and more fluidly without thinking about it. The basal ganglia, where part of the implicit system resides in the brain, for example, are concerned with force and timing of movements, and when that system kicks in, you begin to develop more complex aspects of motor movements, like accuracy and touch.
However, under conditions of stress (like the Wimbledon final), your explicit (conscious) system can take over, which is what it means to choke. Jana Novotna fell to pieces in the ’93 final because she started thinking about her shots again. She lost her touch and accuracy. She looked more like a beginner because effectively she was a beginner. Her brain had reverted to those early explicit learning processes where just hitting the ball had been difficult. When John Terry stepped up to take the penalty that would have won the Champions League for Chelsea in 2008, his brain seemed to have reverted to childhood, when just kicking the ball and staying on your feet was difficult - he fell on his backside as he ballooned the ball wide. (A rare moment of schadenfreude as a United fan). This is also why every time my dad came to watch me play for the school football team, I appeared to replace my perfectly good right foot with and second left foot, and subsequently couldn't hit a cow's a*** with a banjo. (*Sighs with a feeling of regret*). Wayne Rooney’s explicit system appears to take over on most occasions when he receives the ball, holding back his incredible talent. It makes you wonder, how often does fame, and the pressures of increasing scrutiny, diminish prodigious talents like Rooney’s before they’ve blossomed, by causing them to over think and make counter intuitive judgements, shackling their implicit learning system?
More recent research suggests that merely thinking about ourselves in any way at all can be harmful to learning and performance, because to do so activates the self schema – a particular network within the brain. The theory is that anything which activates this network – be it an over focus on bodily movements, memories of past experiences, or the scrutiny of an audience – will be detrimental to skilled learning and performance. In one study, for example, researchers divided 36 students into two groups and asked them to throw 10 balls underarm at a bulls-eye style target. The closer to the target, the more points you get. Both groups performed equally well. Now one group spent a minute ‘thinking about their previous throwing experience, including their strengths and weaknesses as a thrower’; the other group acted as controls and just waited out the time. Both groups then performed 10 more throws. The students who’d spent time thinking about themselves didn’t throw the ball as accurately as they did on their first trial, while those in the control group maintained their skill level.
This research reminded me of a funny story about the darts player, Eric Bristow. Former player Rod Harrington tells how Eric, always the mind-game player, once approached him in the practice room just prior to their match together. Eric said to Rod, ‘Rod, are you breathing when you throw the dart or not?.. Just interested?’ Classic. Rod looked back dumbfounded and spent the first few sets of their match looking like he didn’t know when to breathe and when not to, and couldn’t hit a number.
But it isn’t just the way we reflect on ourselves as individuals that can affect how we perform under pressure. The way in which we see ourselves as being part of a group can be equally, if not more, influential. Researchers in the US, for example, reported that when they gave undergraduates a standardised test and told them it was a measure of their intellectual ability, the white students outperformed their black counterparts. But when the test was presented with no reference to ability, the scores were virtually identical. This is what’s known as stereotype threat. When the black students were confronted by a situation directly relevant to a stereotype of their group – in this case intelligence – pressure caused their performance to suffer. Stereotype threat has been observed in numerous situations in which one group is typically depicted in negative ways. Girls don’t do as well at maths tests when told that their mathematic ability is being tested. White athletic students don’t improve their jumping ability as much when instructed by a black teacher because of what society tells us: white men can’t jump. So this poses an interesting question: what happens when an Englishman steps up to take a penalty in a World Cup?
In fact, all of these points could potentially pose many questions for the English football fan. I remember watching an interview a while ago with a Dutch football coach, possibly Ronald Koeman (usually I save these things but annoyingly not this time). Anyway, he said something that stuck with me. He made the point that in English youth football, at all levels, there has typically been greater emphasis on the result of a match, as opposed to individual performances and teamwork, than in other European countries such as Holland, Spain, or Italy. (I use the past tense here because this may be less so in higher levels of youth football today, but we are yet to see today’s youth develop). Perhaps the effects of this way of thinking have been more profound than we realise. Football, of course, is a team game, that also involves a great deal of luck, which means the result of a match is often out of the hands of any individual – not to mention the fact that you can’t control how well your opponent performs. Consequently, too much focus on the result of a match at youth level may simply be applying unnecessary pressure which could hinder learning and performance. Now clearly, prospective professional footballers need to get used to pressure, but it needs to be the right kind of pressure. If the result of a football match is beyond the control of a young footballer, this pressure becomes stress, and stress can lead to explicit (conscious) thought processes which as we have seen, can impair the implicit (unconscious) learning and performance of complex physical movements.
In terms of thinking about ourselves and focussing on results, there may be another influential factor: religion. Perhaps it isn’t a causal correlation, but many of the most secular nations on Earth, like England, Germany, Sweden and so on, are typically associated with sporting pragmatism, while the more religious nations, such as Spain, Italy, or those in South America, are associated with skill. It may seem far-fetched to propose that religion and skill are linked, but think about it like this: in order for your implicit learning system to develop complex motor movements, it needs the explicit (conscious) system to allow it to take over, and not intrude with anxieties about a possible outcome of a penalty, or result of a match. Many people who strongly believe in god, believe that such outcomes are predetermined anyway, or at least that any outcome is simply part of a grand plan, and therefore necessary. Such a view can settle the brain in stressful situations. There becomes no need for the conscious system to take over. It may be hard to see this link, but think about its effects on a hundred years of sporting development, and how it could feed into performances and consequently stereotypes, and the dangers of stereotype threat.
Perhaps then, it has been a combination of these psychological processes which has impaired our learning of skilful physical movements, produced a perennially pragmatic approach to sport - one in which the focus has been on avoiding defeat, rather than trying to win - and fuelled a stereotype which has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Maybe the English attitude of simply trying to avoid defeat was strengthened after the Second World War, when that approach eventually led to an allied victory. It also signalled the end of the largest empire the world has ever known, and we had to accept that our status as a world super power had gone. Maybe in victory, we still left with a feeling of regret, and came too close to defeat to want to experience it again).
So, now imagine an Englishman stepping up to take a penalty in the World Cup Final. All he can think about is the result, and his explicit learning system begins to kick in. Suddenly, he can feel his sense of accuracy and touch fading. He believes (quite rightly) that his fate is in his own hands (ignoring for a moment the case for or against the notion of free will) and not in the hands of some deity. Furthermore, he belongs to a group which society believes can’t take penalties. What hope does he have? The poor lad.
For the secular man, I think there is a middle ground to be found. While there isn’t a god deciding our fate, our experiences have shaped our brains, and our brains will control what appear to us as free, conscious thoughts. So in a sense it is true that what will be will be. But in times of stress we can reassure our brains that there is one thing we do control: how hard we try. And if we try our best we can have no regrets. Maybe this perspective will allow our implicit system to run free, and eventually change the stereotype of English footballers as functional, but not technically skilful players. Who knows, we may even win at penalties.