Why Do We Choke Under Pressure?
The 2016 T20 World Cup Final. West Indies needed 19 runs off the last over. An unknown Carlos Brathwaite stormed his way into the history books with four consecutive sixes. West Indies won the T20 World Cup for the second time. Ben Stokes of England was bowling the last over. How could a dependable person like Stokes choke under pressure?
The 1999 Cricket World Cup Semi-Final. South Africa needed 9 runs to go to the final for the first time. Remember how Allan Donald choked and threw South Africa out of the World Cup? Why did a seasoned player like Donald choke under pressure?
If you become anxious at a crucial moment when you need to focus, you can drain out attention and working memory. You overthink. You do something silly that leads to your downfall and also that of your team. Stokes and Donald aren't the only ones in sport who have choked under pressure.
Competitive sport, like any other activity, depends on skill, which can be acquired over time. Performance at crunch moments, depends on how well you lock yourself out from outside "noise" and stay cool. How many times have you found yourself blank during an exam, when you studied hard over the semester or the year? We've all been there.
The best athletes (and successful people) are the ones who have high self-confidence. They can channel anxiety in crucial moments positively, and thus choke less under pressure.
Annika Sörenstam was a professional golfer. In her own words, "We all hit bad shots. It's just – how do you regain composure?" She goes on, "The shot you're hitting now is the most important. Ten minutes ago, is irrelevant, and who knows what's going to happen in the next ten minutes?" She calls the shot of the moment, the "now-shot".
If you're influenced by outside "noise", you rush. You think less and can tend to make a mistake at a crucial moment. You have to learn to adapt to the "now-shot". This is easier said than done. The "noise" of the moment is not the only noise that influences you. If you have choked in the past, it could make future choking more likely.
Choking under pressure can be contagious on the day and over time. If one player in your team chokes at a crucial moment, it can spread to the rest of the team.
Including the 1999 semi-final against Australia, South Africa has reached eight semis in global cricket tournaments. They have lost all eight. Pakistan is yet to defeat India in a men's ODI World Cup encounter, although the two teams have faced each other quite a few times. Bangladesh reached two Asia Cup cricket finals only to lose.
In the 1994 FIFA World Cup Final, Brazil and Italy found themselves facing a penalty shootout. Franco Baresi (Italy) and Márcio Santos (Brazil) both missed the first shot. Daniele Massaro (Italy) missed; Dunga (Brazil) netted. The onus now laid on star striker Roberto Baggio (Italy). It was now or never. Alas! Baggio couldn't block out the "noise" from his other colleagues. A seasoned player like Baggio choked under pressure. Brazil won the World Cup after 24 years.
We'll never know beforehand how a crucial moment will pan out. What we do know, it's the mind that takes you across the line in those moments, or crushes you before you reach it. We also know, blocking out outside "noise" is probably the best way out. But then, the "now-shot" is all about having fun and not considering the outcome as the end of the world.
Source: Under Pressure: Why Athletes Choke. The Long Read Podcast by The Guardian, UK. March 22, 2021.