It’s possible to go from choker to champ
Rory McIlroy’s bounce-backability confirms that choking is not a congential defect. Andy Murray, take note.
What does Wimbledon mean to you? Grand slam tennis, Sue Barker, strawberries and cream, jugs of Pimms, rain breaks? Or yet another opportunity to debate whether Andy Murray is a serial choker? If Murray fails to end 75 years of British hurt in the men’s singles, I can guarantee that the c-word will be used with gay abandon.
So what is choking? And, more to the point, will Andy Murray finally convince us that he isn’t a big game bottler? The choking debate is one of the hardy perennials of the British sporting calendar. We might assume fatalistically that the propensity to choke is something God-given or genetically determined. Once a choker, always a choker.
There is actually quite a substantial body of academic literature on choking. Yes, seriously. You’d have thought that pointy heads might have found more fruitful subjects to research. But no, it seems that unlocking the secret of choking is what exercises the best minds of our generation (okay, maybe not the best minds, but you get my drift). Times columnist Matthew Syed says that neuroscience can explain the phenomenon. What happens is that we start to think consciously about tasks which, like driving a car, ought to be unconsciously executed. And because we think too much about it, we don’t perform well. ‘This is the neurophysiology of choking’, Syed explains. ‘It is triggered when we get so anxious that we seize conscious control over a task that should be executed automatically.’
If Syed is right – and there are competing theories about choking – we can explain what happens when a sportsman loses it. But the million-dollar question, and one which neuroscience cannot answer, is why? Why do some sportsmen cope with pressure and others cave in? And can anything be done about choking? Is it something you’re stuck with or is it something you can overcome? It might take the choke researchers a while to answer these questions, but Rory McIlroy has given hope to chokers everywhere with his amazing feat of ‘bouncebackability’(a term patented by his Ulster compatriot Iain Dowie).
Golf fans tell me that McIlroy has a swing to die for. I don’t follow golf so I’ll have to take their word for it. But, even if you are not a golf aficionado, you need a heart of stone not to be inspired by McIlroy’s redemptive choke-to-champ story. In April he suffered the mother of all meltdowns at the US Masters. He went into the final round with a seemingly impregnable four-shot lead. Name on the trophy. Or so we thought. But he blew it. His composure, his technique, his swing, his long game, his short game – it all fell to pieces. It was a total car-crash spectacle – at once both compelling and excruciating.
Within hours of the Irishman’s catastrophic collapse, journalists were feverishly debating where McIlroy stood in the choking Hall of Shame. Was this the greatest collapse in golfing history? It is right up there, some argued, with Greg Norman throwing away a six-shot lead in 1996? Others wondered whether McIlroy would ever recover from the trauma. Will he be scarred for life? Would he ever shake off the choker’s hoodoo and win a major? I was impressed by McIlroy’s phlegmatic reaction after his nightmarish final round. ‘Well that wasn’t the plan!’, he tweeted. ‘Found it tough going today, but you have to lose before you can win. This day will make me stronger in the end.’ Courageous sentiments, but I’m not sure how many people believed he would recover so spectacularly. But recover he did. At Congressional McIlroy held his nerve, held his lead, exorcised the ghosts of Amen Corner and blew away the opposition. Return of the Mac!
And so to Wimbledon and Britain’s surly white hope, Andy Murray. The Scotsman has now reached three grand slam finals and lost them all, prompting pundits to question whether he has the mental strength to win on the biggest stage. Is it overly harsh to describe Murray as a choker? Surely it requires incredible mental toughness to reach a grand slam final? Murray also has the misfortune of playing in the same era as Federer and Nadal, two of the sport’s greatest players. Even if you don’t suffer stage fright, it’s pretty darn difficult to beat those two. All this is true but, to be brutally honest, Murray hasn’t really turned up to any of his grand slam finals. Whether or not it technically counts as choking, he hasn’t performed at his best on the really big occasions.
Murray has two options: either he believes that choking is his fate or else he finds a way of holding his nerve in grand slam finals. I’m no sports psychology expert. Much of it seems like self-help psychobabble to me. But Rory McIlroy’s stunning recovery from his Masters meltdown suggests that choking isn’t a congenital defect; that it’s possible to kick the choking habit. If Andy Murray is looking for inspiration I’d suggest that, rather than watch Braveheart or whatever floats his boat, he replays a video of McIlroy’s US Open triumph. It might sound like a script for a cheesy feelgood US sports movie, but McIlroy’s comeback confirms that there is life after choking.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.