October 29, 2016
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 t