Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City And The Science Of Choking

Choking, the yips, the nervous nineties, call it what you will. Scientific evidence shows that crushing defeat is as self-perpetuating as success...
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Choking, the yips, the nervous nineties, call it what you will. Scientific evidence shows that crushing defeat is as self-perpetuating as success...

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Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City And The Science Of Choking

Well, it seems that bums are squeaking all over the place at the Etihad Stadium and White Hart Lane.

For so long it looked like Manchester City and Spurs would best their respective cross-city rivals but, as we enter the business end of the season the pair are stumbling. When Roberto Mancini’s team humbled Manchester United 6-1 at Old Trafford in late October they recorded their eighth win in nine League games (the other was a draw) and opened up a five-point gap.

The title seemed all but in the bag.  But crucially that gap never grew bigger, Fergie’s men stayed on their shoulder and with City’s 1-0 defeat to Swansea last weekend (which came on the back of a 1-0 reverse in Lisbon) United have taken the lead to four points after hammering Wolves at the weekend.

For Tottenham the story’s even worse. Just four and a half weeks ago the gap between them and Arsenal reached a healthy 10 points when Spurs thumped Newcastle 5-0. You could argue the gap effectively reached 13 points when Tottenham took a 2-0 lead in the 34th minute of their recent game at the Emirates. Yet, despite having The Greatest Manager of His Generation™ in charge, they lost that match with Arsenal and their two subsequent League games and have seen the gap between them and the Gunners shrink to just one point.

Yet, despite having The Greatest Manager of His Generation™ in charge, they lost that match with Arsenal

Of course Newcastle set the template back in 1996, not least because their spectacular choke – conceding a 12-point lead to Manchester United – was embodied by the comedy on-air implosion of their manager Kevin Keegan.

But why does this happen? Why do teams choke? Perhaps it’s the influx of soft foreigners into the English game. After all they lack the grit and bottle of the likes of John Terry. I mean you’d never see him choking when faced with, say, a potentially Champions League-winning penalty. Oh, no…

But a careful look through the annals of English football history and you’ll see choking’s nothing new. Back before Sky invented the game, Sir Alex’s United side handed the title to Leeds in 1992 losing four of their last five League games (winning just three of their last 11).

They did something similar in 1968. Distracted by their, ultimately successful European Cup run, they gifted the title to Manchester City by losing seven of their last 15 League games (having lost just three of their first 27).

It’s essentially the same thing, something the late American tennis player Arthur Ashe called “paralysis by analysis

Clearly the Hall of Shame is almost as big as the Hall of Fame, but why? Choking has different names in different sports it’s the ‘yips’ in golf, ‘the nervous Nineties’ in cricket, ‘the bricks’ in basketball’ and in snooker it’s labelled ‘being Jimmy White’. Yet, call it what you will, it’s essentially the same thing, something the late American tennis player Arthur Ashe called “paralysis by analysis”.

It’s a phenomenon not restricted to sportsmen but which occurs in moments of extreme pressure, rendering the victim unable to complete a task which would otherwise be simple.

In his book Bounce, Matthew Syed explains why this occurs. Most top athletes (in all sports) have reached a point where what they do has effectively become second nature. Through hours of practice and the honing of technique (or, in the case of English footballers - luck) they have encoded these skills in their ‘implicit’ as opposed to ‘explicit’ memory. Basically they don’t have to think about what they are doing.

Syed uses driving as an example. When we start to learn to drive, the relevant tasks which use different parts of the body (feet on clutch, brake and accelerator; hands on gear stick, handbrake and steering wheel; eyes on the road ahead, rear view and side mirrors) can at times be impossible to execute simultaneously leading to numerous roundabout stalls and much swearing from other road users.

A team’s past performance can directly and negatively impact future performance

However, eventually, most of us learn to do all these things at the same time without thinking and are even able to also listen to the radio, talk to our passengers or  wave our fists angrily at those bloody learner drivers. Thus the use of explicit memory by a novice has become the use of implicit memory by an expert (also known as expert-induced amnesia).

Now, here’s the thing. In a high pressure situation some athletes are prone to start thinking about what they’re doing and when this happens, they disrupt the implicit system and revert to using the explicit system. In effect, they’ve become novices again.

(Incidentally, going back to John Terry missing that spot kick, it’s hard to believe he has the capacity to think about anything but I guess you can under-estimate anyone).

The infamous list of high-profile chokers is long, including Greg Norman in the US Masters in 1996, Jana Novotna at Wimbledon three years earlier and Sachin Tendulkar. Before India's ODI against Bangladesh last week, the world’s leading run-maker had been stuck fast on 99 international centuries (scored in Tests and ODIs) for over a year. It was the longest gap between centuries apart from between his first and second at the start of his international career. Perhaps significantly he also has the highest number of dismissals in the nineties in international cricket – 27 – and it had reached the point where some are questioning whether his search for that elusive tonne of tonnes was affecting the form of the whole Indian team. A cluster-choke, if you will.

In short, the study showed that failure becomes self-perpetuating

So, put a player, or a team, in a high-pressure situation and there’s a chance they can over-analyse the situation – start to worry, say, about losing the title or being bowled out on 99 – and their level of performance can deteriorate.

But it gets worse. A study last year by boffins at Oslo’s Norwegian School of Sports Sciences and Groningen’s Centre for Human Movement Sciences published in the British Journal of Psychology demonstrated that a team’s past performance can directly and negatively impact future performance.

They analysed every World Cup and European Championship penalty shoot-out between 1976 and 2006 and demonstrated that teams taking part in their first shoot-out scored 76.4% of their penalties; teams which had won their preceding shoot-out scored 85.1% of their penalties but, most significantly, teams which had lost their preceding penalty shoot-out scored only 65.7% of their penalty kicks. Furthermore, this failure occurs even when those taking the penalties were not part of the previous shoot-out defeat. In short, the study showed that failure becomes self-perpetuating.

Perhaps Fabio Capello, the much-derided foreigner, was right when he said England’s players were mentally fragile

And perhaps they’re on to something - just think of the England team in that time: six shootouts, one success (against Spain in 1996) and the worst shoot-out record among the major football nations.

There’s a flip side to this, of course – success can be self-perpetuating too. Last year, Gary Neville pointed out that the League Cup was the first trophy Jose Mourinho had won at Chelsea and that George Graham had won at Arsenal, both managers used it as the foundation for greater success. Neville also argued that Manchester United’s League Cup win in 2006 was the springboard to what he considered the club’s most dominant period. They went from winning one trophy between 2003 and 2006 (the FA Cup) to winning the League four times in five seasons and reaching three Champions League finals (winning one). That League Cup success had shown a young team that they could win.

While Neville was talking specifically about the League Cup he could have been talking more broadly about the need to maintain a winning culture (he also cited Arsenal’s League Cup final capitulation against Birmingham last season, something they’ve arguably still barely recovered from).

Perhaps, Fabio Capello, the much-derided foreigner, was right when he said England’s players were mentally fragile. But he’s gone now and we all know there’s only one man to take his place. After all, you’d never see a Harry Redknapp team choke, would you?

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