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Cricket news - A cure for Choking?

Over a period of time, the c-word has, rightly or wrongly, become synonymous with the travails of South Africa

We are inside the team hotel, on the eve of a do-or-die World Cup encounter. Nets have been done, team-talk talked, dinner eaten, and the players are in their rooms, thinking about the cricket tomorrow while trying not to think too much about the cricket tomorrow. Time drips forward, deathly slow. Come on, Time: get on with it! But Time will proceed at its own pace, thank you very much. And so to kill the time before Time kills them, the players' minds are drawn into idle daydreams.

They dream of glory, of being The Man. But they also dream - despite themselves, despite the pushback of their rational brain against their emotional brain - of not getting the job done, of being The Man (Who Dropped The World Cup).

However much they gird themselves with self-help books and sessions with the sports psychologist, however many mindfulness courses they've taken to allow them to be 'in the moment', it's hard to avoid thinking about what is at stake. Yes, it is getting serious. And as those sports psychologists will tell you - perhaps not as you pass them in the corridor of the team hotel on the eve of a World Cup knockout match, but rather to a conference room full of delegates paying GBP 7000 per head to learn how to make better decisions under pressure - when it gets serious, the likelihood of choking increases.

The question for the team management would therefore be: "How do we bring our A-game?" Or, to put it another way, the philosophical flipside of the question: "How do we not choke?"

How not to choke?

This may seem a counter-intuitive solution, but perhaps they could hold their winner's party before the tournament. Similarly, management could hand out to each player (especially the more loss-averse ones) a commemorative winner's medal, monogrammed pens and limited-edition Rolex watches inscribed with "World Cup winners 2019", perhaps a GBP 50,000 win bonus, or even a car, and definitely some commemorative X-boxes and golf clubs, those leisure favourites of the modern cricketer. And in the lead-up to the semi-final, they should let the players spend a couple of days playing with all that booty.

No, really. They should. Because science says so.

Specifically, a recent paper in the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience journal, which has found that simply by reappraising the incentive in a computer-based task requiring finely coordinated motor skill as performing-to-keep (P2K) rather than performing-to-win (P2W) a sum of money, people were less liable to choke as the incentives became higher.

One of the paper's authors, Dr Vikram Chib, a biomedical engineer working at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, had previously shown that by reframing incentives - that is, describing the exact same sliding scale of monetary stakes as something participants were trying not to lose as opposed to trying to win - you could attenuate the effects of choking. This was especially true of people who were highly loss averse. "Everyone is loss averse to some extent," explains Dr Chib, "but an individual's loss aversion captures how one values losses relative to equal gains. We found those that valued losses highly (i.e. thought losses were particularly costly) choked more."

In cricket, of course, the c-word has, rightly or wrongly, become synonymous with the travails of South Africa: from the Klusener/Donald disaster of 1999, through the Duckworth/Lewis miscalculation four years later, to the twin knockout losses to underdogs New Zealand in 2011 and 2015, the latter defeat symbolised by JP Duminy and Farhaan Behardien colliding as they fluffed the critical catch offered by Grant Elliott at the death.

Of course, once the Klusener brainfade had become an indisputable matter of historical record, South Africa were thereafter inevitably vulnerable to being called chokers, to being asked questions about being called chokers, to thinking about whether the 'chokers' label was really true - a label that, in the beginning, might have been less a faithful reflection of some inherent trait of the team, or even the national psyche, and more about the act of labelling itself: a stick with which to beat them. Sticking a pin in reality, and watching that reality duly shape itself around the fateful word. A self-fulfilling prophecy.

And yet Klusener had shown himself time and again through that tournament to be the very opposite of a choker, frequently bailing out his team. True, saving the day could be easier when the expectation was low, when everyone else had stuffed up, and perhaps it was only after those two crunched fours off Fleming that the expectation again rose and thus that the "cognitive meltdown" occurred. Perhaps Klusener was thinking "we can win this" (P2W) rather than "we have got this and cannot have it snatched from us now" (P2K).

The definition of choking is independent of expectation, however, and is instead measured by the decline in performance when carrying out an identical task - bowling yorkers, taking spiralling catches in the deep, judging a single - but with the stakes raised ('identical' conditions being impossible to replicate in the ever-changing dynamic of a cricket match, of course). Dr Chib refused to be drawn on whether whole cultures - for instance, the highly religious, highly conservative Afrikaaner Calvinists that have dominated some Proteas' sides of the past - could be considered intrinsically loss averse, but he does say that loss aversion is a relatively static trait, albeit one potentially altered through cognitive strategies.

The former England ODI cricketer and now renowned sports psychologist/performance coach, Jeremy Snape, was engaged by South Africa to help with their "mental conditioning" around the time of the 2009 T20 WC and the highly successful Test tour to Australia that preceded it. At the time, he said the team's perceived propensity to choke was unfair: "I've looked into it and there's no particular pattern. There are just so many different variables that you could look at, with tactics, selection, preparation, individual thought-processes at the time. And it's also very difficult to say when a game was lost. It might be that people say that somebody choked in the last over of the game, but actually the more 'criminal' mistakes might often be made earlier in the day in cricket. So, it's very difficult to pinpoint whether that was choking or normal underperformance."

Reflecting on Dr Chib's research on choking and loss aversion, Snape says: "The only thing I've seen [related to this] is when there's a perceived loss of personal status in losing rather than a gain of achieving something special together as a team. Limiting the downside for a player can help as a coach."

Of course, the consistent pattern of choking under pressure is that, initially, there's an uptick in performance when incentives are in play, but as those incentives increase, the performance tails off: a sort of performance bell-curve. Again, Dr Chib and his colleagues' earlier research had shown that this is especially true of loss-averse participants (Those more motivated to avoid losing what they have rather than risking what they had to win more: the classic Who Wants to Be a Millionaire dilemma.)

During the experiment, they monitored activity in a key region of the brain called the ventral striatum (where the 'meaning' of the incentive is encoded and which communicates with the motor control regions in the frontal lobes) using an MRI scanner. As the stakes on offer were raised, this was initially reflected in greater activity in this brain structure. However, among highly loss-averse participants, as soon as the motor task began, there was a dramatic reduction of activity in the ventral striatum, a consequent loss of communication with the motor control region of the brain, and thus an increase in choking. This was interpreted as a "neurally mediated mindset switch" in which the prize on offer was seen as something to be lost if they failed at the task, triggering the aversive emotional reaction (also measured physiologically, through sweating) which led, via the mediating activity of the ventral striatum, to the loss of coordination. It was this switching that held the key for the research that followed.

However, what they were intrigued to discover was that when the stakes were altered, or reframed, so that there was no money to be won, but instead successful performance meant keeping money participants already had, they observed that more loss-averse participants were now less prone to choking at high incentives in the 'not-losing' scenario (P2K).

Of course, that highly loss-averse participants should be less negatively affected by the pressure of performing to avoid the risk of losing a large amount of money appears nonsensical. The researchers concluded that it was precisely because of the "neurally mediated mindset switch", but in the opposite direction: where loss-averse participants had seen the P2W scenario as the possibility of losing the money that was on offer for successful performance, they now saw the P2K scenario as a chance to gain the at-risk money, which for them was less aversive than the P2W scenario. As expected, in this P2K scenario there were no detrimental neural and psycho-physiological effects on their performance.

All of which led to the recent experiment, in which Chib and his colleagues wondered whether, in a P2W (money) scenario, it was possible for the participants to consciously alter how they construed the incentive: reappraising rather than reframing. That is, could they bring about the "neurally mediated mindset switch" simply by reappraising the incentive as something to be kept rather than something to be gained? Could they trick themselves into thinking that they were performing to avoid losing their money (P2K) and thus stay calmer under pressure and reduce the effects of choking?

The same computer-based motor task was set and the control condition once more showed that when the monetary rewards went up, choking became more likely and that this was especially true with more loss-averse participants. For the reappraisal condition, however, the participants were explicitly coached as to how to think about the incentive, and this technique indeed dramatically reduced choking, as supported by MRI scans of ventral striatum activity and the measurement of sweating.

So, could all this be applied to sports? Could a highly desired outcome (something to be gained) be construed, through a "cognitive reappraisal strategy", as something to be kept, or not-lost, bringing about an amelioration of the behavioural, emotional and neural symptoms of choking?

If so, this could potentially be a major psychological breakthrough, since other attempts to reduce choking have concentrated on managing the effects - for example, through visualisation of success, distraction, or bodily relaxation - rather than reframing the incentive itself. "Because this intervention targets the incentive directly," the researchers speculate, "it may have the advantage of being applicable to a greater range of domains in which choking is caused by the effect of the incentive..."

Everything turns on the precise nature of this "cognitive reappraisal strategy" or psychological intervention, particularly for athletes for whom monetary loss might not be hugely significant. How to re-cast the incentive in such a way that the task through which it is to be achieved - playing World Cup knockout stages, say - is experienced as performing-to-keep or not-lose?

Holding a winners' party and cavorting with the trophy might be considered a step too far, especially when everyone would be inescapably aware at all times that the festivities were a simulacrum, a sham, and thus that all the emotions to which it gave rise were inauthentic. Meanwhile, handing out commemorative trinkets, even of high monetary value, might, in cricketing lore, be interpreted as tempting fate, or what the Greeks called hubris. But then, cricketing lore isn't scientific, and what are you going to believe: Greek mythology or science?

Dr Chib says it is important to "acquire measures of each player's loss aversion and use this to determine how to frame the bonus. Our research suggests that if individuals are loss averse it is best to hand out the incentive before the tournament; if they are less loss averse it is best to use the conventional strategy of giving the bonus after the games."

Either way, it seems that when certain players are cued to think "we are going to win this" (good old Positive Mental Attitude) they are in fact far more likely to choke than when they access a headspace that says, and believes: "This is ours. I am not going to let them take this away from us. I am not going to let that happen." A subtle but - MRI scans now tell us - crucial difference.

Which is why it has been instructive to watch the performance of Ben Stokes amid England's stuttering progression through the round-robin stages, a man who some considered to have choked in the 2017 T20 WC final (you know, Carlos Brathwaite and all that) and who had a similar experience in this year's IPL.

Stokes' efforts with the bat when England were failing to chase 223 at Headingley against Sri Lanka and 286 at Lord's against Australia, scoring 82 not out and 89 respectively, were evidence of someone whose performance level rises when the stakes are high and the pressure is ramping up. Indeed, after the Australia defeat, Stokes issued the following - hugely telling, in the light of all this - rallying-cry to his team, to his country: "This is our World Cup. We've had great support over the last four years and we know how much a World Cup means to fans. We know that as players as well. We're not going to take a backward step. This is our World Cup."

The shift between the two iterations of This is our World Cup - from hosting to possessing - said it all: performing-to-keep, not performing-to-win.

It is little surprise, then, that against India, with England's bat-first strategy starting to flatline, Stokes once again stepped up and delivered arguably the game's defining innings. For England's talismanic all-rounder, the team's emotional heartbeat, you sense that the dream of World Cup glory is in fact a reality until something happens to make it otherwise.

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