UNDER PRESSURE
YOU South Africa|3 December 2020
Why do athletes choke? A new book examines the Proteas’ devastating 1999 Cricket World Cup run-out and other major sporting embarrassments to find out what ordinary people can learn from elite sports stars about conquering performance anxiety

SCOTT Boswell stood at the start of his bowling runup, immersed in his own very public hell. It was the final of the Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy in 2001 at Lord’s in London, which should have been the highlight of his cricket career. Instead, he found himself unable to do what up until then had felt like second nature.

“I became so anxious I froze. I couldn’t let go,” he recalls.

For Boswell (then 26), a fast bowler for English county cricket outfit Leicestershire, it felt like the over would “absolutely never end”. He couldn’t believe what was happening to him.

“How can I not be able to run up and bowl – something that I’ve done for so many years without even thinking about it? How can that happen? What’s going on in my brain to stop me doing that, and to make me feel physically sick and anxious and that I can’t do something that I’ve just done so naturally?”

An over in cricket comprises six balls – that is, six balls that are not considered a no-ball or wide. There are normally only a handful of no-balls in an innings. But Boswell’s second over in the final against Somerset lasted 14 balls as he repeatedly sprayed the ball too wide of the crease on either side. A YouTube video of the over, entitled The Worst Over Ever? has been watched more than 1,6 million times.

As his second over became more farcical – six of his first eight balls were wides – Boswell recalled the crowd getting “louder and louder”. To try to make the ordeal stop, he rushed, taking less and less time before each ball.

“I just remember trying to race through my over to get it completed as quickly as I could. Unfortunately, I sped things up when pressure got to me, rather than trying to slow it down and take a step back, do the breathing, have a little smile – ‘It’s only a game of cricket, off you go’.”

Elite athletes are like the rest of us: they get anxious and it hampers their performances. In the last 30 seconds of tight basketball games, female NBA and male NBA players are 5,8% and 3,1% respectively less likely to score from a free throw – an uncontested shot awarded to players who have been fouled – than at other moments in the game.

When players take free throws in home matches, they are more likely to miss when the crowd is bigger.

The very best athletes manage to channel the anxiety they feel positively, especially if they have high self-confidence. Athletes with low confidence view anxiety as detrimental to performance, but those with high confidence tend to perceive it as a sign of being ready for the challenge ahead. This makes them less likely to choke under pressure.

The best athletes are also more adept at brushing off disappointments during competition.

The champion golfer Annika Sörenstam jokes that she never hit a bad shot in her life. “I don’t remember them,” she says.

Lesser players could be consumed by their mistakes, but Sörenstam would clinically dissect what happened, then get on with the business of trying to recover her position.

“You’ve just got to learn how to dissociate – make a quick analysis, boom. Forget about it, move on, don’t carry it with you, learn from your mistakes. We all hit bad shots. It’s just – how do you regain composure?”

IT WAS the semifinal of the 1999 Cricket World Cup. One of the most extraordinary games of all time was reaching an excruciatingly tense conclusion. South Africa needed 214 to beat Australia and reach their first final.

If the two teams got exactly the same number of runs – which was unprecedented in World Cup history – Australia would qualify, by virtue of having finished higher in the pool stage.

The last over began with South Africa, down to their final batting pair, needing nine runs to win.

Facing the bowler was Lance Klusener, who was in the midst of a stunning run of form. In the first two balls of the final over, Klusener crunched both deliveries for four.

South Africa needed one run from four balls – with Klusener still facing the ball. At the other end, Allan Donald, South Africa’s No 11 – a brilliant fast bowler, but the team’s worst batsman – didn’t need to face a ball. He just needed to run to the other end to get the single run South Africa needed.

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