Why we choke

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Friday, December 10, 2004

3am IST - Where's K? Where's G?

A few days ago, I had to sign some property documents. You know how these legal papers are, pages and pages of them, and one has to sign at the bottom of each one. As I was signing my way through them, the thought struck me, "what if I suddenly forget how to sign? My signature is a complicated scrawl, what if I suddenly find I can't reproduce it any more?" I turned a leaf, paused with the pen just above the paper, and couldn't go on. Three people looked at me, as I just sat there embarrassed. I tried to reconstruct in my mind how I should sign, moved my hands, but what came out looked like a counterfeiter's scrawl.

I managed to get through those papers, but I wondered later, what on earth had happened to me? I was just signing a bunch of papers and I choked? How utterly bizarre. What, for me, had been one of the great mysteries of cricket, and sport - why people get the yips, or choke, or suddenly become unable to do what they have done so well all their lives - suddenly became one of the great mysteries of life. Then I came across an article by Malcolm Gladwell.

Titled "The Art of Failure", Gladwell's piece first appeared in the New Yorker in 2000, and explains, in his own words, "why some people choke and others panic". He begins his piece with a reconstruction of the 1993 Wimbledon final, when Jana Novotna, so famously, so heartbreakingly, forgot how to play tennis while leading 4-1 in the final set, serving at 40-30. Having brought alive those moments, he states the purpose of his article. "We live in an age obsessed with success," he writes, "with documenting the myriad ways by which talented people overcome challenges and obstacles. There is as much to be learned, though, from documenting the myriad ways in which talented people sometimes fail."

Gladwell first takes us through the process of how we learn something by describing an experiment. He writes:

[P]sychologists often use a primitive video game to test motor skills. They'll sit you in front of a computer with a screen that shows four boxes in a row, and a keyboard that has four corresponding buttons in a row. One at a time, x's start to appear in the boxes on the screen, and you are told that every time this happens you are to push the key corresponding to the box. According to Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, if you're told ahead of time about the pattern in which those x's will appear, your reaction time in hitting the right key will improve dramatically. You'll play the game very carefully for a few rounds, until you've learned the sequence, and then you'll get faster and faster. Willingham calls this "explicit learning".

But suppose you're not told that the x's appear in a regular sequence, and even after playing the game for a while you're not aware that there is a pattern. You'll still get faster: you'll learn the sequence unconsciously. Willingham calls that "implicit learning" - learning that takes place outside of awareness. These two learning systems are quite separate, based in different parts of the brain. Willingham says that when you are first taught something - say, how to hit a backhand or an overhead forehand - you think it through in a very deliberate, mechanical manner. But as you get better the implicit system takes over: you start to hit a backhand fluidly, without thinking.

This is the process all cricketers go through as well. Batsmen go into the nets and they play, or bowl, over after over, day after day, week after week, till all their strokes are second nature to them, and are being played automatically, which is the only way they can be played when a bowler's bowling at you at 80 miles an hour. Bowlers run in, again and again and again, till their bowling action is as natural to them as walking is - it requires no thought.

This is why coaching a player right early in his career is so important - if the wrong things go into his "implicit learning", they are hard to correct, no matter how hard you try. And this is also the reason why batsmen and bowlers are advised not to try to make drastic changes to their technique in mid-season - because those changes take time to become implicit, and off-season practice is the best time for that.

This learning process also explains why we choke. When placed under severe stress, when we think to hard over what to do and how to do it, the centers of the brain where our "implicit learning" is stored - our basal ganglia, says Gladwell, in the case of timing and force, which are so important in cricket - break down, as the "explicit system" takes over. To put it another way, instinct gives way to knowledge, and in sport, where reaction time is so little and the manner in which we play must almost be reflexive, we can't cope. Our realisation that we are choking increases the stress, aggravates the condition, and it can all fall apart from there.

Of course, I was under no stress at all when I was signing those property papers. But my implit learning failed me for a while, and what was second nature to me became something so hard to do. All routine tasks involve this kind of implicit learning - playing a musical instrument, dancing, driving a car, and even typing on my keyboard, as I am doing now. My subconscious knows where all the letters on the keyboard are, but if those centres of the brain which control my automatic typing freeze for whatever reason, I'm in trouble. Let's try this - I presume you're reading this in front of your computer, so take your hands away from the keyboard and keep them at your side. Having done that, without looking at the keyboard, and without imagining your hands on them, tell me where K is. And G.

If you're blessed with a photographic memory, you might remember, but everyone I've tried this on so far has failed, even in telling me which half of the keyboard the letters are in. Isn't that bizarre? My fingers know, but I don't.

One more blog of mine - Thanks for the overwhelming response to The Middle Stage, which I told you about in my last post. I have started another blog, which will focus specifically on Indian news and commentary, called India Uncut. Both these blogs will be updated daily, often several times, unlike 23 Yards. Please do have a look, and feel free to send in your feedback, I'd appreciate it.

Also, my apologies for many mails left answered, I've been madly bogged down this week. But I read every one of them, and I respect the effort and the thought that goes into them.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Cricinfo in India.

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