I’ve just finished reading a very good summary of the core reasons why we choke. The article is a nice clean summary and is worth a read.
Fundamentally, it comments on how information is stored in the brain and transferred from a semi-autonomous region to a more thoughtful process. The semi-autonomous region falls apart when it is forced to transfer back to the other part of the brain. Your brain can be in the zone, then forced out of it! This can happen by accident or by your sly opponent forcing you to do it.
For what it’s worth, here is my experience of this exact thing. This can teach us some critically important things. The first thing it teaches you is how a skill is learned and then becomes “natural”. It is also useful to understand what’s going on inside your head, a sportspersons head or even that of an entire team!
Why have they lost confidence? Why can’t they play the way they were doing a short while ago? Why has this team failed? What can the manager do about it? What exactly does restoring confidence mean?
I have two stories to tell you about why we choke, both separated by a large number of years and one bit of practical experience that ended in a nice profit.
Choking in Tennis
When I was young I would play tennis doubles with a friend of mine. Individually we were not really that good, but when we played we were almost telepathic. Our incompetence within the core game was overcome by our ability to out-think our opponents. Our ability to read and game and to move around the court in unison was a perfect foil to much more skilled players.
During one particularly promising spell, we managed to beat a number of opponents on the way to the latter stages of the tournament. Our progress surprised us as even with our above-average combination, we were still not as good as doubles players that were fundamentally better than us. Overjoyed with our progress, we were playing some very confident Tennis.
Upon reaching a critical match, we both talked to each other at the start of the match about how important it was and how it was amazing we got this far. If only we could see ourselves through this match it would be an amazing result and we would be so close to the tournament final stages.
Therein what followed was one of the worst games of tennis we had ever played and we were mystified at how we could mess things up so much! It was a bit embarrassing to reach that later stage then crumble.
It was a humbling experience.
Choking in Golf
Many years later I found myself in a senior corporate role and entertaining clients was a key part of the role. As a result, I was often getting invites to play golf. The big issue was that I’d never played golf and I had no real idea about how to do it.
So I leaned on a friend of mine who was a golfing fanatic and he gave me some lessons. I practised very hard to become semi-competent at playing golf. My key objective was to be able to step out on a championship course and not hopelessly embarrass myself.
Eventually, I had enough confidence in my game to actually go out and play in an organised tournament, an amateur one. What followed was one of the worst games of golf that I’ve ever played and I was mystified at how I could mess things up so much! I seemed to hit the grass more than the ball most of the time. Or sometimes the top of it, sending the ball skidding across the grass a few yards. Thankfully I was paired with some sympathetic players who were already aware of my nervousness.
I recalled my tennis journey of many years earlier and how the same thing happened, so I went to seek advice from the golf professional at a nearby club. What he did, surprised me. Because he didn’t talk about my game at all which he said was ‘OK’. He watched me swing a few balls then said there were areas to improve but talked to me about something else.
What he actually did was talk about my mind and the tricks it was playing when I was playing a round of golf. He did a couple of things to demonstrate this to me. This included getting me to think very intensely about what I was doing and getting me to stop thinking at all about what I was doing. He summarised by saying that I was over-thinking every shot when I played in that tournament and in fact, I should just go out there and enjoy it and I would play a whole lot better.
He recommended that rather than thinking through each of the individual shots when I went to play them. I should just hum a tune or recite a book in my mind. Yes, look at the shot, line up the shot, look at the ball and just check that everything is all right, but don’t over-think the actual shot. Just let it happen!
Does it have exactly the right lie? Is that grass in the way? Have I selected the right club? What about if I just gently pull it from left to right? Should I have taken on a different line to this point? Pretty much all those things evacuated my head and I filled it with thoughts of “isn’t this a nice course?”, “wouldn’t it be great if I could get this to within a few yards of the hole?“, “That was a great tee shot”
From complete failure to winner
A year after my disaster in the amateur tournament I played the same tournament again at a different course. I strode out full of confidence with my new knowledge. Not only did I play well, but I had the round of my life and ended up winning the thing! A better performance was what I was aiming for, but I never expected to win it. That was crazy.
On this particular day, I could do nothing wrong, nothing. It was amazing! Driving off the tee the ball would ping straight as an arrow, sometimes way beyond my standard driving distance. Hazard shots were perfect, I was putting in from 20 feet and chipping over trees to reach the green. I just could do no wrong. As I got the latter part of the round I realise my score was good enough to win so I just eased back on tricky shots and played percentage golf. Becoming aware of how I was playing actually influenced how I played those last few holes but I saw it through.
I guess my better performance and a bit of luck combined with my new approached and that was enough to produce the win. The rather large silver trophy still sits proudly in my dining room and I can bore people to tears with the epic round of golf that acquired the trophy. It’s funny how it seems easier in hindsight!
The simple fact was that during the tennis tournament in the prior golf tournament, I had choked. In the latter tournament, I was completely relaxed at ease with myself and let my subconscious do the hard work. I never really expected to win the tournament, that was a bonus.
But what I had learnt however was the art of not choking. It was a life moment that stuck with me to this day and changed the way I approach situations and especially ones that involve risk.
Spotting key turning points when Betfair trading
I have blogged about this before in sports markets. But there can often be key turning points in a sport, in matches and it’s most dominant in individual player sports, especially Tennis. Probably the most subtle example I can give in recent years is where a feather flipped Murray out of the zone and he couldn’t close out the final.
Having held his own and fortuitously won the first set, Andy Murray went into the second tie break having had the better of the second set. Halfway through the tie break, down flutters a feather and distracts Murray just for a moment. It was like a scene out of Forrest Gump, who would have thought small objects could have such a bit effect. After getting rid of the offending object Murray double faults, loses the second set tie break and never regains momentum. It turned out it was a very key moment in the match, but I didn’t spot it at the time. Definitely one for the notebook. It was interesting to note that the market got it spot on at the time. Plenty of lay bets arrived on Murray at that moment. Seeing that amount of money turned out to be a great proxy for a key turning point in that match.
The other key moment in the match was that key second game in the second set. Murray really had the wind behind him after the first set and served first in the second. His first service game he won to love and he really had Djokovic on the ropes on his following service game. Murray won eight straight points to put Djokovic on the back foot at 0-40. But he just couldn’t finish him off. It was a massive save for Djokovic. It wouldn’t be until 2-1 0-1 Djokovic till Murray would get another clear chance at a break and having failed again, he was then broken and the match was pretty much over.
Often you can find opponents who will deliberately try to get you to choke, some people choke easier than others. But understanding the thing that gets you there, will help you trade that situation a lot better. Maybe it can also help you, in a number of different areas.
But understanding what’s going on in somebodies mind, either on the field of play or in your own mind, is a key trading tactic!