September 18, 2013

How scarcity affects sportsmen

Like elsewhere in life, in sport too, deprivation makes people anxious and one-eyed, leading to mistakes and failure

When you are starving, it is hard even to imagine being released from the ache of hunger. When you're shivering in a snowstorm, it is difficult to remember that one day, once again, you will feel the warmth of the summer sun on your face. Deprivation is not just a physical state; it also diminishes your psychological and imaginative capacity. All cricketers, even the great ones, understand this from personal experience. Bad form messes with your mind.

The striking thing about bad form is how it can poison a player's personality as well as his game. I played with one batsman who, if he was already out, would take every subsequent play-and-miss by a team-mate as a personal affront. "Look at him, playing and missing," he would mutter, "I must have used up all the bad luck earlier on." Even though his batting was no longer relevant to the innings, he was unable to separate his own narrow struggle for runs from the wider experience of watching someone else bat. His own scarcity of runs was so prominent at the front of his mind that he couldn't see around it.

Desperation born of scarcity also explains why batsmen play so weirdly when they are out of form. We have all seen out-of-form batsmen, searching to get off the mark, imagine scoring opportunities that weren't, in fact, ever there. When a struggling batsman plays across the line and gets lbw, it's often because he convinced himself that the ball was missing leg stump, and hence invited an easy scoring shot, when in fact it was always going straight at the stumps. Anxious hopefulness and harsh reality become confused in the batsman's mind - which explains why so many awkward conversations in the dressing room begin with the plaintive question, "That was missing leg, wasn't it?" (Translation: "Tell me that was missing leg!")

Social scientists have long understood the effect of scarcity on behaviour. During the Second World War, a group of conscientious objectors agreed to participate in a study on starvation at the University of Minnesota. Thirty-six healthy men lived in a controlled environment where their calorie intake was reduced to the point where they were eating just enough food that they didn't permanently damage their health. The physical results were graphic and extreme. Subjects lost so much weight that even sitting down became painful - they had to use pillows.

More relevant from a sporting perspective is how hunger affected the subjects' minds. One participant recalled what depressed him most about the experience: "It wasn't so much because of the physical discomfort, but because it made food the most important thing in one's life… food became the one central and only thing really in one's life. And life is pretty dull if that's the only thing. I mean, if you went to a movie, you weren't particularly interested in the love scenes, but you noticed every time they ate and what they ate." Scarcity had captured their minds to the point where they were overwhelmed by it. It changed the way they thought about everything else.

Mental strength, Steve Waugh once told me, is about behaving the same way in everything you do at the crease, no matter how badly you're playing

Starvation may sound like an extreme way of making a simple point. But a more recent study shows that mere routine hunger also affects how people go about straightforward activities. One experiment compared the responses of one group of dieters and another group of non-dieters to a simple task. The subjects simply had to push a button when they saw a red dot on the screen. Sometimes, just before the dot appeared, another picture would flash on the screen. For non-dieters, this picture did not influence their ability to see the red dot. But for dieters, they were less likely to see the red dot if they had just seen a picture of food. So flashing the image of a piece of cake, for example, significantly lowered the dieters' chances of noticing the red dot immediately afterwards. The cake, in effect, blinded them. The title of the study captures the point: "All I Saw Was the Cake."

Both these examples are drawn from the thoughtful new book Scarcity, by the Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and the Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir. Sport is not the focus of their book; it gets only two pages. But non-sports books have often helped me reflect on the experience of playing sport. Nassim Taleb's Fooled by Randomness taught me more about cricket than almost any other book - yet cricket is not mentioned, and Taleb hates organised sports.

In the same way, Scarcity provided brilliant scientific footnotes to an experience I remember only too well: being out of form, suffering from a scarcity of runs, feeling consumed by a craving for something I lacked. As the authors put it: "Because we are preoccupied by scarcity, because our minds constantly return to it, we have less mind to give to the rest of life." In cricketing terms: when you are desperate to succeed, you are so preoccupied with scoring runs that you attend less fully to watching and reacting to the ball.

The authors add: "We can measure fluid intelligence, a key resource that affects how we process information and make decisions. We can measure executive control, a key resource that affects how impulsively we behave. And we find that scarcity reduces all these components of bandwidth [or mental capacity] - it makes us less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled."

Exactly. It makes us more likely to get lbw. At an extreme, this process becomes choking, when the experience of scarcity is so dominant that athletes are unable to perform even perfunctory, routine tasks.

So how can sportsmen get out of the downward spiral of scarcity leading to still more scarcity? I've long suspected that the best players are often the best actors. They are able to project an aura of confidence - abundance, if you prefer - even when times are hard. This confidence trick is only partly about fooling the opposition. More importantly, it is also about fooling yourself. Mental strength, Steve Waugh once told me, is about behaving the same way in everything you do at the crease, no matter how badly you're playing.

The strongest competitors are better equipped at superimposing a better alternative reality that replaces the facts as everyone else perceives them. When Novak Djokovic is drawing away to victory, he hums his favourite piece of classical music to himself. The tune and the experience of victory have become intertwined. So he now hums the same tune when he is struggling at the start of a match - it helps him auto-correct towards confident, winning ways.

Hope, optimism, belief - call it what you will. Perhaps it is simply the ability to conjure the feeling of afternoon sunshine on your face while striding into the teeth of a winter gale.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here