Four more inches would have done it.
The crowd in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, was electric as Chile defender Gonzalo Jara began his run up to the ball. Jara had just let out a quick exhale, a calming sigh, as if to say, Here goes nothing. At stake was his country’s advance over Brazil to the elimination round of the 2014 World Cup, the pinnacle of athletic achievement by most accounts. Jara was the last of his team’s five penalty kicks.
His approach was swift and calculated, confident with an air of brutality. Contact with the ball sent it rocketing, like a tiny explosion, firing toward the right goal post well over two feet past the reach of Júlio Cesar, Brazil’s elastic goalkeeper. But it didn’t hit the mesh. It caromed off the post, shooting at a 90-degree angle past the invisible plane in front of the net, all the way to the left-hand side, and bouncing its way out of bounds. The ball hadn’t even come to rest before an army of yellow jerseys had begun to storm the field. It was all over.
Four more inches would have done it.
When you take in the moments leading up to Jara’s final shot — indeed, the final shot any Chilean player would execute in the tournament for another four years — you begin to wonder: What was he thinking? And not in some derisive, off-handed way. Literally: What was he thinking? What was his brain doing? Why did he, an 11-year veteran of the sport, miss a shot he had complete control over?
The field of sports psychology seeks to answer those questions. It wants to find out why golfers miss 2-foot putts, why college basketball stars lob an air ball at the free throw line, and why, during the final inning of game six of the 1986 World Series, first baseman Bill Buckner let a dribbling ground ball sneak through his legs. These people aren’t ordinary. They’re experts. So why do they choke?
If you have any hopes of picking up a skill and mastering it, the process requires an important transition. It needs large chunks of gross, conscious, explicit movements to turn into fluid, unconscious, implicit movements. Consider tennis. Learning how to execute a forehand begins with learning the fundamentals: how to hold the racket, how and when to swing your arm. As you improve, your muscles engrain these movements as patterns. You begin to access them as you would water from a faucet. All you need to do is turn it on.
“This is something that is going to happen gradually,” Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, told the New Yorker. “You hit several thousand forehands, after a while you may still be attending to it. But not very much. In the end, you don’t really notice what your hand is doing at all.” Choking, psychologists find, is what happens when your brain shuts off the faucet for you.
In this sense, athletes always want to keep the water running. As ironic as it sounds, they want control over their unconscious movements. When they don’t, they begin to understand the gravity of a situation. They realize a green jacket is on the line, so they send a golf ball rimming around the cup. Or they see the roar of the bleachers and envision their future in the pros, and they dump a shot by mistake. Emotional distractions turn into cognitive distractions. Our brains get in the way, not only stopping us from concentrating on the sport, but from playing it at all.
University of Wolverhampton Sports Psychologist, Andrew Lane, is interested in helping athletes keep the faucet turned on. He’s worked with some of the world’s top soccer players and track athletes to get them out of their heads, offering advice to quell pressure, stress, and emotions, and instead to play the game with strategy.
One of the key obstacles Lane outlines in avoiding the potential for choking is preparation. High-stress situations, such as those demanding a Chilean defender to put a soccer ball past a Brazilian goalkeeper, will cripple even the most experienced athletes if they haven’t readied their brains for stress. Conventional wisdom says to calm yourself down in the moment. But Lane offers a counter-intuitive thought. Rather than try to take the stress out of the real moment, he tells athletes to bring stress into practice. Recreate the experience. When the time comes to do the real thing, you’ve already created a groove for your brain to slip back into.
“Imagine taking a penalty in an important game; recreate the scene in full colour, sight, sound, and feeling,” Lane explains. “Your job is to focus on kicking the ball hard and accurate. Learn to deal with distractions.” This, psychology has found, is the only way to ensure implicit motor skills don’t revert back to explicit ones — to ensure an electric crowd goes dead quiet, at least for the moment, before you take a final exhale.