Forces behind unforced errors: the problem of choking in tennis.

For those who don’t like long reading:

The main trait of choking is that this kind of mistake happens during the execution of well-learned action, which supposed to be automatic.

Something interferes and distracts smooth and fluid performance. Perhaps, this “something” is distractive thoughts.

Well, this explanation is too general and cannot satisfy us. It would be interesting to know what exactly is going on. What kind of thoughts? Where they come from? What can we do with them? These questions are the topic of the presented article.

The roots of choking are in Fear. This Fear grows from our dependence on social evaluation, on the need for the acceptable level of self-esteem, and dread to die.

Fear causes interference from high-level cognition in the form of doubts, worries, and anxieties into the execution of well-learned skills.

This interference may result in loss of concentration (attention to the main task), shifting to internal focus ( excessive and detailed control of execution), reinvestment (returning to novice’s way of execution), and ironic/overcompensation errors. Ultimately athletes may choke.

Choke is possible because:

1. Sports actions are never completely automated.

2. Sports skills are not so naturally embodied in us as animal skills are embodied in them.

Remedy:

Minimise fears by using the Zen approach to sport, get more natural technique by learning it non-linear way, do not create Ironic Processes by negative instructions, and, if they still appeared, laugh at them and break the vicious circle.

And all done. There are no chokes anymore.

 

For those who still have questions.

 

I am involved in tennis for almost six years. I still cannot stop to appreciate its uniqueness.
It is a sports game. Like many sports games, it has a ball, opposition, score, and an infinite variety of situations. At the same time, you can consider tennis as a one-to-one duel. It is a very physically demanding contest. However, unlike boxing or wrestling, you can not break your opponent physically. Therefore excellent  technique, tactics, and creativity are essential.

Tennis has a different score system compare to other popular games like football, basketball, hockey, etc. Each game and set inside the match have their separate score. You can win more points than your opponent but still, lose the match. The scoring system sets down no time-limit on the tennis match. Therefore its duration is unpredictable.

So, you don’t know how long you have to maintain concentration. Even if you play most of the game brilliantly but lose focus, in the end, you cannot just hang on and keep your advantage, as you can do in time-limited games. You will lose.
All these make tennis quite interesting not only for spectators ( it is one of the most popular sports in the World) but for Sports Science as well.

The primary purpose of this article is to investigate the problem of choking under pressure in tennis.
This problem is quite prevalent in many sports and attracts significant attention from psychologists and even philosophers. Despite that, it is too complicated for a clear and non-ambiguous solution.

So this article presents analysis, advice, and sharing of experience.
Actions will be on you.

 

Winning the game.

 

Who wins on training

Technique.

Efficient execution of action (good technique) is very important in tennis. You simply cannot play without it. Sublime shots make for your opponent more difficult to get the ball. The diverse technique makes your attacking and defensive arsenal wider. The stable technique allows you to make fewer mistakes than your opponent.

Physique.

Strength and speed.

If you hit the ball stronger, it travels faster — your opponent has less time to react. If you have quick feet, you can expand your reaching area and get more difficult balls. This makes your adversary to decrease his safety margin and to make more mistakes. Importantly, if you are fast, you can arrive at the ball earlier and hit it from a better and well-prepared position.

Endurance.

A tennis match is long ( sometimes Grand Slams matches go for 5 hours). Though the overall distance is not so big compare to, let’s say football, the amount of short sprints, accelerations, and decelerations is pretty high. You can add a significant upper body load. So, it is a really exhaustive contest. Look at Nadal and Djokovic after their famous Australian Open final in 2012 

Agility.

Agility is a change in body speed, direction, as well as orientation in space in reaction to stimuli.
These actions are fast and spontaneous.
Agility allows effective execution of technique from every position, even if you are unbalanced, on the move, or unprepared. The need for agility in tennis perhaps is not so obvious, like in football or basketball, but it is really important.

Tactics and decision making.

That is choosing the right action, which is suitable for the current situation. It should be fluid, flexible, and, if appropriate, original (see article). Good tactics create difficulties for your opponent and advantages for you. Therefore your chances to win the game increase.

 

Who wins in competitions.

To compete, you need to be good at all the above. Let’s imagine the hypothetical situation: you and opponent are even technically, tactically and physically: Who will win a competitive match then?
It is when psychology steps into play. And one of the important aspects of the psychology of tennis is choking under pressure.

I consider choking to make mistakes in simple situations when actually you shouldn’t. There was no obvious reason for that.
Sometimes this phenomenon is called paradoxical mistakes. Although it so widespread in sport and other human activities that there is nothing unusual in it.
In tennis choking even has a special name—”unforced errors

Of course, the word “unforced” is a little bit deceptive because there are always some forces behind choking. What kind of forces we will try to understand.

 

 Choking in sport.

 

Types of choking.

Choking may be a massive mistake, which is obvious for everybody or small error noticeable only for experts who know the game well.
Choking might be a single episode, which is dangerous only if it happened in a decisive moment. On the other hand, multiple chokes may lead athletes away from the almost won match to disaster. Perhaps most dangerous is chronic choking, when it appears regular in player’s performance.
Choking is not a simple slip. Slip has no psychological reason. In simple words, it is not because of nerves. It is mostly due to unstable technique. Sometimes it difficult to see the difference between two, but usually coaches know.

The reasons for choking.

The main trait of choking is that it happens during the execution of well-learned action, which supposed to be without mistakes.
Something interferes and distracts this smooth and fluid process. We may believe that such “something” is distractive thoughts. Well, this explanation is too general and cannot satisfy sports psychologists.
It would be interesting to know what exactly is going on. What kind of thoughts? Where they come from?

In contemporary sports psychology, there are two mainstream theories of choking: distractions of attention (DA) and the internal shift of attentional focus (SF).
Ilundáin-Agurruza put it simply: First theory suggests that choke is a consequence of not paying enough attention to the task at hand, and the second states that we choke because of paying too much attention to already well-learned skills  (Ilundáin-Agurruza, 2015).

 

Attentional distractions.

Due to stress, we may become more vigilant to external stimuli. This grows from the evolutionary need to detect danger as soon as possible. Unfortunately, we may become over-vigilant and pay excessive attention to non-relevant stimuli such as shouting from the crowd, opponent’s gestures, etc., therefore wasting attentional resources needed for the main task. Consequently, we may make a mistake.
Attentional Control Theory (Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos, & Calvo, 2007) goes further and states that distractions may be within us in the form of anxieties, worries, and fears. Internal and external distractions may interact and facilitate each other in a quite complicated way, but the main idea is simple: they are taking resources from Working Memory . The more task relies on Working Memory (WM), the stronger will be deterioration in performance due to distractions. Saying simple: more complicated, or less learned actions are more vulnerable.

 

Shifting to an internal focus.

Supporters of this theory(s) claim that paradoxical mistakes happen because, under pressure, we start to pay too much attention to actions that are already well learned and should be performed automatically. (Beilock, Carr, MacMahon, & Starkes, 2002)
With this excessive attention, we interrupt the smooth and fluid execution of the action, and it fails.

For example, reinvestment theory (Masters & Maxwell, 2008) claims that under pressure, an athlete may return to explicit step-by-step instructions on how to act. These instructions he learned long ago when he was a novice and to use it now is detrimental.

 

Ironic errors and over-compensation.

Another interesting type of paradoxical mistake is Ironic Errors.

The ironic error means making the same mistake that you are trying to avoid.
There is a theory that explains why this happens. I am not going to discuss it here, although it is quite interesting. However, it is difficult to find robust empirical support for such kinds of theories. The interested reader can find more about Ironic Errors in (Wegner, 1997).
From a practical point of view, ironic errors are quite common, and we need somehow to deal with them.

There is seemingly the opposite type of mistakes, which, in my opinion, is another side of the same coin —overcompensation (de la Peña, Murray, & Janelle, 2008; Toner, John & Moran, Aidan & Jackson, Robin. (2013).

They may happen when an athlete, trying to avoid something, overreacts and makes a mistake in the opposite direction. For example, wanting to avoid putting the golf ball short, a golfer strikes too strong and misses a hole.
I have found an interesting example in the famous tie-break between Marat Safin and Rodger Federer.
Having a very convenient position for winner Safin hit the net twice. Finally, at the last point in the similar situation, he hit out and lost the match. I suppose, when shooting the last ball long, he kept in mind previous net hitting, but of course, it is just my hypothesis:

 

Net. Ironic forehand

 

Long. Overcompensated forehand

 

The simple answer.

Well, in my opinion, no theory can comprehensively describe what’s going on in a human’s head.
Look at this video.

 

 

According to SF theory, Socks’ glutes should prevent Federer from switching to internal focusing and actually help to the execution of this simple shot. However, he made a mistake.

DA, in this case, looks better. External stimulus (buttocks) had drawn attentional resources from the main task, and Federer missed. He said after the match that distraction was too big, hinting on massive Socks’ rear.
Nevertheless, even according to DA, this shot should not be vulnerable to external distraction because it is simple and does not need attentional Working Memory resources.

I will suggest my answer later. For now, it looks to me that these theories grasped and described interesting phenomena: internal and external distraction of attention, internal shifting of focus, reinvestment, ironic errors, and overcompensation.
However, the main question, in my opinion, remains unanswered:

Why are skills that should be automatic and not in need of control vulnerable to external and internal distractions? If Federer did something else, instead of hitting the ball, say tied the shoelaces, he would probably have done it anyway, no matter what Sock showed him?

The simple answer is:

Choking can happen because sports actions are never entirely automised, and they still need control.

 

Automaticity in everyday actions and expert skills in sports.

 

Fred Dretske argues that… “the case of all skilled actions, whether it be tying your shoelaces, playing a musical instrument, or dribbling a basketball – the mind goes elsewhere while the body performs” ( Citation is taken from Sutton,2011).

Is that true?

In our time widely accepted explanation of how people become experts in motor skills such as sport or music is the following:
In the beginning, people learn skills following explicit step-by-step instructions. Gradually, as their skills progress, these instructions fade away, and skills become unconscious, intuitive, and automated (Dreyfus, 2004). The body “knows” what to do.

From this point of view, choking happens when under pressure, athletes suddenly return to conscious control and distract their bodies from doing the right things. That is basically in agreement with SF theories.
It sounds logical, but what exactly is automated action?

Well, (Breivik, 2013) explained that quite well.
This is the paraphrase of his example:

I’m driving my car. I shift gears, make turns, apply the brakes without thinking. I obey the traffic light, I don’t even remember when I did it. My thoughts wander somewhere in everyday problems. Conscious control comes back only when something goes wrong (for example, a cat jumps onto the road).

In this scenario, consciousness is like “a policeman controlling a peaceful protest” (Fridland, 2014). It intervenes only when something goes wrong.
So is this an example of expert automation? Is this proof that I am an exceptional driver? Can I compare expert sports skills with my driving skills?

No, it is not. And Fred Dretske mixed different things: everyday actions and skilled, competitive performance.
I am a mediocre driver, and while driving, I am not competing with anyone.

When Louse Hamilton drives his Formula1 bolide, he probably does not think about shopping or planning his holiday. His mind is not wandering elsewhere. He should be completely absorbed with the action. He cannot afford to miss any information, because he needs to beat the best drivers in the World. So probably his actions cannot be described as mechanical, effortless, and mindless.

An athlete cannot be completely in automatic mode because sporting environment is full of new information. I know this sounds strange. However, even though sports situations are often quite similar, which is the basis for training skills and gaining experience, they are never the same (Toner, et al., 2015). “Repetition without repetition” as put it Bernstein (Bernstein NA,1996). Your opponent acts differently, circumstances are different, and even you are different at any point in time.

Moreover, in sports games opponent often wants to exploit your reliance on automaticity and deceive you. Most feints commit by attackers are based on the defenders’ tendency to follow automatic reflective actions that lead them directly into the trap. Therefore automaticity in sport is not always a good thing. You should be ready for surprises.

Federer missed because attention still was needed for that simple shot. In the game, even simple situations always have some nuances. That distraction was vivid and surprising. It distracts the mind from making small and maybe unconscious adjustments, and choke happened.

 

Ibex and fox.

 

 

On the other hand, everyone who played sport at some good level knows that most of the actions are indeed not consciously planned or monitored. Otherwise, WM would be overloaded with information processing, and actions would be very slow. Thus expert skills in sport, although they are not mindlessly automatic, at the same time, are not always consciously guided.

So what are they?

For answering this question, it may be useful to look at animals.
In the time-scale of evolution, we are very close to them. If evolution is represented metaphorically on a day-long scale, we are just a few seconds away from our “small brothers.”
They have incredible motor skills and they learn it very fast. Some of them already have amazing abilities just a few days after birth.

There was a beautiful episode in the BBC’s “Life” series featuring Sir David Attenborough.
In this episode, baby ibex, who was just a few days old, encountered a fox. There was breath-taking chase when ibex skilfully ran from the predator. Finally, she jumped on a steep ledge where fox could not reach her despite all his attempts. In the end, he gave up and went away hungry. Spectators were full of excitement and admiration, which can be summarised in one sentence: “Baby ibex outsmarted one of the canniest predators on Earth!”

So, did ibex really outsmart fox?

Well, perhaps she did not “outsmart” him in the human sense of “outsmarting.” She had no plan, did not calculate fox actions, and actually never met fox before. She unlikely had a mental representation of fox as “fox” in her mind. She instinctively ran from someone aggressive, and when the steep ledge was available, she jumped on it and waited to look if fox can reach her. The same as a cat jumps on tree running from a chasing dog.

Does this mean that ibex is a “natural machine” guided by unconditional reflexes?

No, ibex is not a primitive automat because she was able to deal with a novel situation quite effectively. Her behaviour was not a set of rigid input-output instructions but rather quite a flexible response in a highly dynamic situation. Without the participation of high-level cognition, in the sense of planning and calculation, she took into account a lot of things: her skills, fox actions, and the details of the terrain. We can say that she acted intelligently. Some scientists call it “basic mind” (Sanchez Garcia, Raul, 2015). And she ran so gracefully!

How could such kinds of complex skills be available just after a few days after birth?
Definitely, nobody taught baby-ibex.

I have found an interesting answer in the article devoted to the problems of Artificial Intelligence (Zador, 2019).
Whereas some simple organisms may have rigid genetically predetermined brain-wiring ( scheme of neurones connections and strength of these connections), in more complex animals genome determines only a set of rules for wiring and its patterns. These rules are biased in favour of behaviour which evolution “considers” necessary for survival.
That is some kind of scaffolding upon which animals quickly build their skills.

Different species have a different level of pre-programming, or let’s say exactness of scaffolding. More rigid and detailed genetic instructions mean that animal has skills immediately available at birth, but such skills are not flexible for further development during maturation. Less rigid rules allow an animal to learn. In this case, more time for establishing behaviour is needed, but it can give long-term advantages for success in particular surroundings.

The learning goes through interaction with an environment where such interaction quickly creates necessary brain circuits and bodily skills. It’s a two-way process: new brain’s wiring allows new skills; in turn, new capabilities enable new experiences and create new and strengthen old wirings.

Baby-ibex helped us come to two conclusions which we can apply human performance:

Intelligence can be without thinking.
Learning can be without teaching.

If we still insist on comparing ibex with a machine, it will be future generations of Artificial Intelligent (AI) machines. As authors of the article argue, for now, AI still far inferior to baby-ibex. AI should still learn a lot from Nature. At the moment there are no machines which can do what animals can do.

Ok, machines cannot, but what about sports experts?

 

Three-store building.

 

 

Humans don’t have genetic instructions for playing tennis and other sports.
These skills are not necessary for survival directly.
However similar to animals we have innate brain-wiring for basic motor skills which are necessary in our life. They can be learnt naturally. In turn, these skills help us to acquire proficiency in sports.

My analogy for sports skills is three store building.

First floor or base is genetically determined skills which every healthy baby gets for granted ( tracking with gaze, walking, reaching, grasping, holding, running, jumping, etc.)

The second floor is formed by genetically facilitated skills that can be learned naturally. However, the child still needs a suitable environment for their acquisition. Examples: Throwing, aiming, catching, intercepting, kicking, striking/punching, jumping over obstacles, running with the change of direction, basic acrobatics, climbing, balancing. Children usually get these skills during games with peers, and you can see some genetically determined differences in their abilities. At the beginning of my coaching career, children were coming to the sport with already formed second floor. Now, especially in rich countries, we often need to teach them. Currently, kids lack physical activity. This is bad for the acquisition of sports skills, health, and, possibly, even for mental development.

The third floor is the sports skills. Children need some guidance to learn that. These skills are based on the first and second floors and heavily depend on them. At the highest level of expertise, athletic skills have a lot in common with animals. However, they are too far from the ground to be completely the same.

 

Embodied cognition.

 

The sporting environment, likewise the natural one, is dynamic and, to some extent, uncertain. Experts should always be aware of what is going on and make adjustments on the fly.
They have no time to think.

However, as baby ibex showed us, cognition itself should not always be kind of separate entity for collecting and analysing information which commands the body what to do. It can be Radically Embodied and Enactive.
Intelligent actions can directly arise from interaction with the environment without broking from high-level, calculating, and planning cognition (Daniel D. Hutto & Sánchez-García, 2015).

So quite similar to ibex:
“Skilled expertise of a radically embodied, enactive sort emerges through processes of continuous interaction between individuals with certain abilities and their surrounding environments, where features of the latter are perceived by the individuals as opportunities for action (affordances)” (Breivik, G.,2013).

Experts have a different level of affordance compare to novices; thus, their minds work differently. Beginners just “don’t see” some situational solutions as experts do because their bodies cannot afford these solutions. So body, mind, and futures of the environment are unseparated parts of an expert’s cognition.
This explains why their actions are so fast and efficient: Experts can act intelligently but without thinking.

Nevertheless, complex actions in sport, and probably some animal behaviour as well, can be even much more complicated than fox-ibex chase. These actions cannot always be described as a simple dichotomy: automatic—conscious.

Some authors described expert’s control as “meshed” when the cognition of different levels intertwines with automated actions. In this theory:
“…cognitive control nevertheless makes a vital contribution to skill control by determining the Nature of the situation and configuring and adjusting lower order sensorimotor processes appropriately. Cognitive and automatic processes thus characteristically operate together in an intimately meshed arrangement…” (Christensen, Sutton, & McIlwain, 2016).

I need to stop here because this philosophical field is really complicated. Perhaps I already went too far. I just need to take quintessence from all these readings, which I can carry on to practical implementation.

 

Summary:

Expert skills in sport are not mindlessly automatic. Importantly, the mind in skilled sports action is not a policeman whose role is basically passive, and intervention is only needed if something goes wrong. It is instead a guide who actively leads athletes through the dynamic situation. This guide is acting at the fringe between conscious control and instinctive actions, and efficiently uses both modes of cognition or rather all spectre between them (Sutton, 2011; Ilundáin-Agurruza, 2015). It is not dichotomy conscious-unconscious— both modes are always present. Their proportional involvement depends on the situation.

Choking may be considered as a rough interruption of this fine-tuned mechanism.
From this point of view, this does not mean that the intervention of high-level cognition in itself is bad. It’s counterproductive when it “badly executed” (Daniel D. Hutto & Sánchez-García, 2015), and intervenes in the form of ego, fears, self-doubt, anxiety, emotional disturbances, step-by-step instructions.
When instead of concentrating on driving, our driver starts to fight with passengers.

Expert sports ability, to some extent, is similar to animal skills. It is spontaneously intelligent, fluid, and fast. However, it is more vulnerable to choking for two reasons:

Firstly,  it is third-level of acquisition; thus, it is relatively far from the natural base. Athletic skills maybe not so profoundly embodied in us as it is the case in animals.

Secondly, differently from animals, high-level cognition influences sports actions in humans. This made us much more sophisticated tactically and strategically but perhaps much more susceptible to worries and self-doubts. In the case of chocking, our strongest evolutionary asset may play against us.

 

What to do.

 

In the following chapter, I am going to share my thoughts about some practical methods for dealing with choking.
I just want to emphasise that they are not instructions but rather an invitation for coaches to consider new approaches and perhaps reconsider traditional ones.

Psychology of choking remains “terra incognita,” and nobody can tell you for sure what to do. Nevertheless, learning from other’s experiences and listen to scientific advice is always useful.
There are plenty of methods that were tried in studies to fight the choking (for review see: Peter Gröpel & Christopher Mesagno, 2019).
Some of them (e.g., introducing the second task), in my opinion, are questionable. Another like following routine or deep breathing may be useful in some circumstances but not in others.

I am going to draw your attention to approaches that seem more strategic to me.

 

Increase your comfort zone.

The most obvious solution is increasing the comfort zone.
That means to make your athlete faster, stronger, more hardy, better prepared technically, and tactically.
All these things about which I wrote in “Who wins on training” section.

How this is connected with choking?

If you comfortably can put the ball half metre from the target on training, probably you can put it one metre even under stress. That may be enough to remain relatively safe and confident, thus to avoid chokes. However, if your precision is one metre wide on training, under pressure, it may increase to two or tree metres, and you may be in trouble. That creates nervousness and chokes.

Expanding your comfort zone makes your opponent decreasing his. For example, if you have very fast feet, you can reach and return much more “difficult balls.” Consequently, he needs to play closer to the lines, therefor to decrease his safety margin. Now he is outside his comfort zone. This may make him nervous. Mistakes will follow, and his confidence disappears, whereas yours goes up.
The same logic can be applied to technical and tactical skills.
I think the idea is clear.

 

Going out of the box of traditional thinking, or how you should hit the second serve?

In sports, as in many other areas of human activity, there are things that everyone does the same before someone asks a simple question: “Can this be done differently?” This is the engine of progress.
A good example is the Fosbury Flop style in high jumping.

Perhaps in tennis, the action which needs some changes is a serve. More exactly—the second serve.
Double fault in serving can be considered as unforced error and perhaps even a choke. I am arguing that sometimes taking more risk makes serve’s mistakes part of the strategy—not choking.

From childhood, coaches teach kids that the second serve should be less risky than the first. But why? In basketball free throws, the second throw is statistically better. In darts, consequent throws are better than first as well (Wunderlich, Heuer, Furley, & Memmert, 2019).

Perhaps this comes from a condition that, without the right serve, you cannot start your game at all. You will lose your service game even without a single shot from your opponent. This is different from, let’s say, basketball where free throws are just penalties. Serve is a relatively complicated technical action, especially for kids. Therefore, they need to somehow start the game, and the coaches teach them that the second serve must necessarily deliver the ball into the service box.

When players get older, and their skills improve, serve becomes not only an action to start the game but also a powerful offensive weapon. Or at least it should be. Nevertheless, the notion about safe second serve remains, and most players continue to follow it. In fact, weak serve often is not the right choice. “Safe” second serve is not safe if you are playing against a good returner or if your opponent’s baseline game is much better than yours.

Let’s take for comparison two players from the 2019 season:
Alexandr Zverev and Roger Federer.

On his first serve, Zverev hit 66.85 % “in” and from that amount, he won 77.82%.
This means that from all first serves he won 50.02%
His second serve percentage was much worse: only 44.31% wins.
Thus, theoretically, he can play his second serve as risky as the first, and in any case, he will do
better than he did.

There was a different story with Federer.
His first serve winning percent was close to Zverev: 50.8.
However second serve wins were much better: 59.44
So, since he is a better player on the baseline and because his second serve, even though it is less risky, remains dangerous, he managed well. It may be reasonable for him to stick to his strategy.

From this analysis, my conclusion is that the second serve should be flexible.
Of course, the second serve as risky as first should not be from despair but the flexible strategy. If you are a brilliant baseline player, you probably could afford a cautious second serve. But if your opponent is a good returner and better than you at baseline, then go-ahead and don’t be afraid.

Interestingly Zverev was not so bad in his second serve in his previous years. And he is pretty good in hitting aces.
So advice for him maybe “Don’t worry about double faults. Hit it!”
Of course, I am not his coach, and for advising, you need to know his circumstances better.

However, the general tendency, in my opinion, should change.
Attitude type of: “Please do not make double-fault!” promotes ironic errors. Another approach is needed. It may be: “You have a good serve and two attempts for it, you will be fine. And if double-fault happened, don’t worry, your serve will come”.
In fact, some players start to reconsider the second serve strategy.

The story about serve is just an example. There may be some other traditional approaches that may be reconsidered.
Don’t be afraid to go out of the box of traditional thinking!

 

Introducing stress on training.

It is a fashionable word now —vaccination ( I am writing this article during COVID-19 quarantine).
Can we vaccinate athletes on training and make them immune to stress?
It is not an easy question.
You don’t want to break your athlete psychologically, not saying physically. At the same time, you want players somehow becomes accustomed to stress.
So how can you make them be stressed on training in some controlled way?

Some methods which are used in scientific studies make me smile.
For example (Raôul R.D. Oudejans, J.R.(Rob) Pijpers, 2010) hanged darts throwers on the climbing ropes and claim that this can induce anxiety.
Well, I am not sure that this is relevant to real competitive stress. For me, to throw darts hanging under the ceiling will be just fun.

Cash incentives used in some other studies are also not practical.
Criticism from the coach or collective responsibility is indeed sometimes very stressful for the athletes. However, I do not think that this type of treatment will be a vaccine from choking. It may be just the opposite.

In fact, I am in favour of corporal punishment.
What!!!???
Introducing corporal punishment on training sounds heretical in our times of behavioural correctness and tolerance.
Well, corporal punishment is not necessarily mean beatings; in coaching practice, we use exercises. Often these exercises are unpleasant and exhaustive.

Is it justifiable?
Well, in my opinion, at least it is better than cleaning the changing rooms (Bell, J. J., Hardy, L., & Beattie, S. 2013).
However, it is crucial how you present it to athletes.

Physical punishment should be a consequence of the mistake, not an act of revenge (Seifried, 2008).

I tell my tennis students: “If you made a mistake in the game, that makes your match longer (if you are going to win, obviously). Remember, a tennis match has no time-limit. Because of your mistakes, you will need to run more. So, the additional physical load is an obvious consequence of mistakes. Let’s prepare to this on training.

The most difficult part is to find the edge where the vaccine may become harmful.
Punishment should be vaccination, not a poisoning which only pushes athletes deeper into the troubles.

For that three conditions are important:
1. The technique should be already stable.
2. Interventions should be stressful but not harmful psychologically and physically.
2. The player should understand and support punishment.

 

“Don’t think about limping monkey!”.

The ironic process is a good example when well-intentioned attempts to cure illness may, in fact, just fuel them. Antidote becomes a poison (Wegner, 1997).
Often instructions type of “Don’t do this!” is a direct reason for Ironic Errors and/or over-compensation. Moreover, even so common instructions as “Relax” may have, in fact, the opposite effect.

The first most apparent advice will be: do not create the Ironic process (IP) by giving negative instructions.
I knew one tennis coach who claimed that players often make paradoxical mistakes on the last, winning point. He asked his students to concentrate more on these decisive moments and to avoid mistakes. With the same success, you may request one do not think about limping monkey. Not only that, there are no such data about the prevalence of paradoxical mistakes on the winning points, but even more harmful is that he actually created conditions for IP in his players.
So coaches, please don’t do this! ( This is, by the way, ironic instruction. Ha-ha ).

If you suspect that IP already took place, there are two things for consideration.
First, you have to find out that IP is going and what fuels it.
Secondly, you have to decide if you should talk with athletes about ironic errors at all? Maybe better do not bother their minds with potentially harmful thinking?

Well, you can see that IP is taking place if a particular pattern of simple mistakes repeats and alternates with overcompensations.
For example, the player repeatedly hits the net from the winning position, and, in another time, from a similar position, he plays long. So you can suspect some struggle is taking place inside her head.

In my opinion, with mature players, you can talk about what is going on and to help them to deal with IP. Janelle suggested using meta-cognitional skills (the ability to think about thinking) to help them to recognise IP (Janelle, 1999).
This is needed because IP is quite common. Even if a coaches do not create IP in their students, they can still get this illness. If IP appears and the player does not know what is going on, he may be confused and frustrated. The first step for dealing with the problem is to recognise it.

Let’s take a typical example of the development of IP:

The player really does not want to hit the net. However, his/her mind begins to do them a disservice. It takes episodes from the player’s memory when she did just that. The athlete starts to worry. She is trying to control her mental state and actions. As a result, her movements lose their fluidity, she hits the net or overcompensates, and the ball goes out. Her anxiety is increasing. She tries to control her muscles and mind, even more, giving herself the command to relax or the opposite a command, “concentrate!”

These mental or verbal commands, as well as attempts to control movement, only exacerbate the situation, creating a vicious circle. In this situation, supposed cure—attempts to control, is a poison that fuels IP. We need somehow to interrupt this vicious circle (Shoham & Rohrbaugh, 1997).

One of the methods I use is switching player attention to external stimulus instead of him concentrated on his inner state. For example, doing an “ironic” shot, he has to put the ball in the area where I cannot reach the ball. I always change my position, often in the last moment, just before he makes the shot, causing him to monitor me continuously. Not only does the need to control me make him less inclined to try to control his internal state, but this exercise requires the player to make adjustments to his technique at the last moment. Such modifications contribute to the variability and flexibility of actions, which is precisely the opposite of rigidity, which leads to an ironic mistake.

Serve may be another example. Already mentioned instruction: “Please do not make double-fault!” is just what is needed for IP to start. Additionally, you have a lot of time during serve, which strangely enough may be a bad thing. IP and reinvestment may highjack this time.

To deal with this, I made a special device that gives external reference points during the serve. I tried to make it more vivid by drawing a funny smiling face. During pressure moments, athletes just need to recall what he did on training. Maybe a funny smiling face helps him.

The paradoxical vaccination is another, though perhaps a risky method, to interrupt IP
The idea is that you create IP on training by laughing at the player and provoke her to make slips and chokes. It is what Sock did with Federer. That looks like you actually may create a bad pattern. However, if you are skilfully using a joking atmosphere and humorous pressure, you may help the athlete to laugh at her mistakes and do not take them too seriously. This may create some kind of immunity to IP.
IP goes hand to hand with frustration. So, don’t be too serious.

What player should do if IP happened during the game? If player had “ironic training”, the good thing is that now she can recognise IP and knows what is going on. She can use a little bit of sense of humour and self-irony. No frustration. Concentrate on the game and relevant external stimuli.

 

Be positive.

Give “Do” instructions instead of “Don’t do” instructions. It is simple. Instead of telling, “please don’t shoot out,” tell him: “Ok mate, put the ball into the left corner.” Definitely left corner is not out. And there will be no ironic errors.

Create positive images of ideal actions in your student’s minds. Is that some kind of internal focusing? Yes, but it is not reinvestment or self-doubts. Expert performance is always an interaction between internal and external focusing.
(Breivik, G. 2013) argues that experts have a mental representation of their actions. I tend to agree.
These images should be perfect, smooth, and fluid execution of actions.

The mental image of the motor actions involves the same brain areas responsible for real movements. So coaches should make this image positive and encouraging (Cumming & Eaves, 2018). You can make a video of athletes when he/she is ideal. Film this ideal action from different angles. To make it more vivid and memorisable athletes may wear some bright clothing (e.g., bright T-shirt).
Don’t show them a video with mistakes too often. Use it just for the illustration of necessary corrections.

 

Be wider.

Often parents in tennis are obsessed with winning more than their kids. Following the western narrative of a hard-working athlete, they push children to narrow, tennis-focused life. Not only they deny kids from other fields like arts and science, but even other sports are prohibited. It is just tennis, tennis and tennis. Of course, such an approach promotes burn-outs, insufficient physical, and mental development. Tennis is not only about how many hours you spent on court tennis. It is a martial art.

And warrior should be a comprehensively developed person.
It is not accidentally that adepts of martial art in the East always practiced some other arts too.

Learning from other sports is helpful as well. Not only this makes you better physically, but it develops you mentally as well. We can take a lot from different fields of human endeavour. There are many examples when high-level athletes are looking for different areas in the arts and sports in order to broaden their horizons.

Just a few them:

Caroline Wozniacki ran marathon during her preparation to US Open.
Formula1 Champion Jenson Button is a good-level triathlete.
Sirena Williams  practices painting.
Garbiñe Muguruza climbed Kilimanjaro to improve her mental toughness.

 

Why will non-linear pedagogy be better for dealing with choking?

 

Some of the problems which lead to choking have roots in the teaching style.
Tennis is a highly technical sport, and you cannot play tennis without proper technique.
However, it is a game, which demands perfect physique, quick thinking, creativity, and tactical skills.
And it should be fun!

Nevertheless, often chasing some “ideal” technique coaches torture their students with infinite “basket drills.” They give a load of detailed instructions to kids and prefer rigid exercise settings.

These coaches forget that there is no such thing as the ideal technique and that in the game, not a basket will be your opponent (Tsetseli, Zetou, Vernadakis, & Michalopoulou, 2016).
They insist that such kind of training promotes automaticity. However, as we have seen, automaticity, even if it is achievable at all, is not always good.

Not only this way of training promotes boredom, burnouts, and dropouts, but it develops seeds of future chokes.
The artificial and narrow-learned technique is more prone to chokes under pressure. It is as if our third floor, although it looks good from the outside, was not firmly built inside to withstand the storms of competition.
Can learning be done differently?

Yes, it can.
Non-linear pedagogy, in my opinion, borrows its ideas from Nature and Eastern philosophy. (Davids, Araújo, Shuttleworth, & Button, 2003)
As we see before, animals learn by building skills around genetically prepared scaffolds. Nature creates constraints that guide this process very efficiently. Although, as you can imagine, nobody gives instructions to baby-animals.

According to non-linear pedagogy, the coach takes the role of Nature, guiding the learning process by creating conditions that gently but firmly push students to the needed direction. However, importantly, students search for solutions by themselves and adapt technique, which is, on one hand, variable and on another stable. That is not a contradiction. Remember— “repetition without repetition.” The technique must be strong enough to withstand pressure and flexible enough to adapt to different situations. Additionally, this active way of learning allows players to acquire technique which is unique for them. Because the ideal technique is utopia.
In the future, the technique learned this way will be much more robust, natural, and flexible, thus more sustainable under pressure.

Does this mean that the coach should completely avoid verbal explanation and basket drills?
Of course, not if these methods help to create necessary environment and guide student’s search.

Non-linear pedagogy considers learner and learning environment as one dynamic system—the same as ibex-fox-mountains. The coach, player’s abilities, and nature of the sport create the constraints. Learning is a goal-oriented process where constraints force learner to self-organise and  find suitable solutions by acquiring new skills ( Sánchez-García, 2015).

 

Changing attitude

Ultimately we choked because of fear.
So a comprehensive solution will be — get rid of fear.
It is easy to say but difficult to do.

Maybe in our life, we are too dependent on esteem. I already wrote in the article that dependence on esteem is perhaps the primary source of stress. It may get us as worry about social evaluation, which is people’s opinion about us, and as a pursuit of high self-esteem, which is our opinion about our-selves. Depending heavily on these two esteems may be detrimental and stressful.

Eastern philosophies, like Zen and Dao, considered that our fears and worries are created by false attachments, desires, and ego. Even so natural instinct as an attachment to life, and consequently, fear of death was considered a burden. These attachments bound free spirit and stopped us from development and be in harmony with ourselves and the Universe.

I am not a specialist in Zen, but it seems to me that the quintessence of their approach is to achieve non-attachment.
Nowadays, there is a fashion for the application of Zen, Yoga, and other Eastern philosophies in Western sport and fitness industry.
It is not bad though most of the “teaches” know their subject superficially.
In my opinion, a much more interesting “answer” to ancient Eastern Zen is the development of Extreme sports in the West.

If we consider seriously learning an anti-choking strategy from ancient Zen masters and extreme athletes, one question is particularly interesting for me: how about competitions which are an integral part of the traditional sport?
Indeed competition is all about winning and to be better than others, so how can we separate them from ego and worries? Some scientists indeed think that Zen is incompatible with competitions; thus, all attempts to apply Zen in sport are artificial and superficial (Krein, K., and Ilundáin-Agurruza, J., 2014).

Possibly this notion should be reconsidered.
Competition in sport may be seen as part of the learning and self-development environment. Winning is not an ultimate goal but rather means for development.

I give you an example.
I climb a peak. It is a relatively hard route for me, which takes 8-9 hours. The prize is a breath-taking view (if the weather will be good). Is making to the summit and enjoying the view my ultimate goal? No, otherwise, I could take a cableway, which in 15 min brings me to the top. On the other hand, can I say that I don’t care about getting to the summit? No, I do care. To feed my ego? Err… not really. It is different. I enjoy the process of climbing itself, but without a goal, it is like a picnic. Summit provides me means and reference points for improvement. If I won’t get there, that shows me what in my preparation is wrong and where I need to improve. I can argue that competitions are useful not because you have to prove that you are better than others but because it makes you better than before. Otherwise, all process is just a picnic.

If we develop the right attitude to sport and competitions in kids, we may help them to get rid of worries about self-esteem and social evaluation. Unfortunately, our society still promotes these false values. But I have a feeling that changes are coming.

 

Conclusion

 

The roots of choking are in Fear. This Fear grows from our dependence on social evaluation, on the need for an acceptable level of self-esteem, and fear to die.
That Fear causes interference from high-level cognition in the form of doubts, worries, and anxieties in the execution of well-learned skills.
This interference may result in losing concentration (attention to the main task), shifting to internal focus (excessive and detailed control of execution), reinvestment (returning to novice way of execution), and ironic/overcompensation errors. Ultimately athletes may choke.

Choking is possible because:
Sports skills are not so naturally embodied in us as animal skills are embodied in them.

Remedy:
Get rid of fears by using Zen approach to sport, get more natural technique by learning it non-linear way, do not create Ironic Processes by negative instructions, and, if they still appeared, laugh at them and break the vicious circle.
And all is done. There are no chokes anymore.

It is simple, isn’t it?

 

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