The Science of Choking

There are countless examples of professional athletes doing incredible, clutch plays to win the game.  From Derek Jeter’s incredible “flip” to home plate to save a run in the 2001 ALDS to Tiger Wood’s 10 foot put in the 2005 Masters on the 16th hole to secure his win.  Being “clutch” is not limited to just one play as we see in great performances such as Wawrinka defeating Djokovic in the the 2015 French Open Final.  What about the other way around?  What about Greg Norman’s infamous collapse in the 1996 Masters?  Or when Jana Novotana choked her way from winning the Wimbledon Final in 1993?  As fans it’s a reminder that even the best athletes are susceptible to choking.   In our own personal experiences there are very few athletes that have not struggled to meet the expectations of performance we give ourselves. But what can we do to avoid this?  The science has some interesting things to say about this….

Explicit vs. Implicit

When we practice purposely, we attend to the details of our technique related to the strokes, footwork and placement to improve our performance as a tennis player.  Every ball is carefully thought through as we are creating mental representations of what we should look like as we proceed to reenact these images on the tennis court.  This is called explicit practice.  Everything is under a careful watch to ensure we are working towards a specific part of our game.  When we play well during a match, our implicit mental system takes over, allowing us to react and strategize throughout the match without thinking of the strokes and techniques that we worked on in practice.  This is because technique is automated.  Just like after driving a car for years, we can think of other things while hitting a tennis ball.  When we “play out of our mind” its because we are not thinking of our strokes at all.  We allow it to “just happen” without worrying that it will miss.  Our energy can be used for the physical exertion needed to move well on the court and mental capacity to think and strategize throughout the match.

Why We Choke

The problem of choking comes to where we start using our explicit mindset during matches.  We start de-chunking our automated strokes which takes the fluidity of our strokes away, leaving yourself with strokes that resemble a beginner rather than what you are used to seeing on the practice court.  If you keep focusing on yourself, you not only sabotage the beautiful shots you worked on in practice butalso takes the energy away from the important parts of competition; strategy and movement.

How To Practice Implicit Thinking

After your practice of technique where you are explicating thinking, play points out to get into the mindset of implicit thoughts to focus on performing well without thinking about your technique and footwork.  This will be tough at first to differentiate and you may catch yourself trying to correct your form after a miss while playing points out but try to regaining your focus by focusing on your effort and strategy.  This will keep you from falling into the trap of thinking about your automated shots and putting yourself into a mindset that could ruin your performance.