Choking: The Case of Jana Novotna: “One of the most famous collapses in sport”No Opinions
In 1993, Jana Novotna played Steffi Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon women’s tennis final. Novotna was in a strong position; she led the match 6-7, 6-4, and had a game point at 4-1 in the third and final set. She was in a virtually unassailable position (Cuffe 2012). Despite this, Novotna lost the game and Graf won the final five games of the match and the Grand Slam title. In those last crucial games, Novotna double faulted on her serves and mis-hit her overheads. It has been described as one of the most famous collapses in sport (Abulleil 2015).
The Wimbledon final is undoubtedly a high-pressure situation; an event which is one of the highest profile events in tennis and could be considered a high stake situation, where performing carries implications for future opportunities and successes (De Caro et al. 2011). Lidz 1998 claims that, due to this pressure, Novotna ‘choked’ during the final set. ‘Choking’ is a metaphorical expression that describes performance decrements under pressure conditions despite an individual striving to perform well (Baumeister 1984). Gladwell (2000) argues that during the final set, Novotna began to think about what she was doing, she started to pay attention to her serves, lobs and volleys; this, he believes, is when the match started to go wrong for her. What caused this to happen? It is proposed that there are multiple routes to skill failure (De Caro, Thomas, Albert & Beilock 2011)
One reason may be due to Novotna cognitively appraising the game as a threat. She was exhibiting a negative mental approach to pressure and therefore there were no physiological improvements to enhance her performance. The Theory of Challenge and Threat States (TCTSA; Jones, Meijen, McCarthy & Sheffield 2009) is sport specific and provides us with an explanation of why athletes evaluate sporting scenarios as either a challenge or a threat; it provides a way of understanding athletes’ perceptions and experiences in competition. This theory supports the commonly held belief that some individuals will rise to the demands of competition and perform well, while some will wilt and perform poorly. The principles of challenge and threat have implications for Novotna’s performance; if Novotna’s threat appraisal of her situation produced negative emotions, these negative emotions could have caused harm to her performing (Skinner & Brewer 2004).
The notion that Novotna began to consciously pay attention to the control of her movements causing her skill breakdown can also be explained in perceptual-motor literature. Fitts and Posner (1967) proposed that an explanation of anxiety-induced conscious control lies in stages of learning. From a cognitive perspective, these stages are underpinned by different knowledge structures and methods of control. The cognitive approach is characterised by an ordered process of acquisition that sees the performer begin with overtly controlled (explicit) processes that gradually undergo structural constriction into the smooth, unconscious and covertly controlled (procedural) processes of the expert. It can be argued that Novotna, as an ‘expert’ tennis player, usually displayed the characteristics of expertise involving functioning of an automatic, effortless, implicit nature (Masters 1992). Also, at the beginning of the match Novotna’s processing of her skills were being executed procedurally outside of working memory and her movements were smoother and more coordinated, she was able to concentrate on other cues without interruption (Beilock & Carr, 2001; Fitts & Posner, 1967; Masters, 1992). In other words, Novotna was playing brilliantly and taking a commanding lead over Graf (BBC Sport 2004).
However, under pressure in the final set, Novotna experienced self-consciousness which caused her to regress back to inefficient processing of explicit information, similar to that of a novice performer, resulting in her poor performance (Baumeister, 1984; Mesagno, Harvey & Janelle, 2011). Here, conscious controls interfered with the automatic execution of her behaviour (in Novotna’s case her serve, lob and net shots) and lead her to a breakdown in skill behaviour. This ‘reinvestment’ of controlled processes may explain choking (Masters 1992). This theory of reinvestment (Masters, 1992; Masters & Maxwell 2008; Masters, Polman & Hammond 1993) proposes that relatively automated skills can be disrupted by attempts to consciously monitor and control the mechanics of movements. This would explain why Novotna, with the pressure of the Wimbledon final, began to think about how she was executing her shots and was operating her skill with her explicit knowledge of the mechanics of the skill.
To delve deeper into an explanation of Novotna’s breakdown, an analysis of performance declines in high pressure contexts can be explained by two competing groups of theories: skill focus theories (Baumeister 1984; Beilock & Carr 2001; Masters 1992) and distraction theories (Eysenck & Calvo 1992; Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos & Calvo 2007; Wine 1971). In both theoretical approaches it is assumed that anxiety has an influence on an athlete’s attention regulation (Beilock & Gray 2007). However, the specific assumptions on how one’s attention is affected diverge.
According to skill-focus theories, anxious individuals have a tendency to shift their attention inwards as one’s level of self-consciousness increases. The attentional focus can be either directed on the separate steps of proper skill execution, termed explicit monitoring (Beilock & Carr 2001) or individuals attempt to consciously regulate the specific skill execution in a step by step manner, termed conscious processing or reinvestment as previously discussed (Hardy, Mullen & Jones 1996; Masters 1992; Masters & Maxwell 2008). In the case of expert performers, such as Novotna, this attentional shift leads to a disruption of well-elaborated automatized skills which actually do not require conscious processing, which in turn can be associated with performance decrements in the respective movement execution (Beilock & Carr 2001).
In contrast, distraction theories propose that anxiety consumes limited attentional resources of an individual leaving less attentional capacity for the actual sports task at hand (Carver & Scheir 1981; Lewis & Linder 1997; Wine 1971). In line with the assumptions of Processing Efficiency Theory (PET; Eysenck & Calvo 1992) and Attentional Control Theory (ACT; Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos & Calvo 2007) it is proposed that anxious individual’s attention is shifted away from the actual task and directed towards task-irrelevant stimuli which can either be internal stimuli (e.g. worries) or external stimuli (e.g. the crowd). This attentional drift leads to impairments in the efficiency and the effectiveness of task execution.
It is difficult to come to definitive conclusions as to the reasons behind Novotna’s choking incident in 1993, as it would appear that there are multiple routes to skill failure (De Caro et al. 2011). Novotna has been very quiet on the subject of the 1993 final and has rarely spoken of the incident. She claims that it was strictly a failure of her game plan. Novotna’s stance of the match is contradictory to her reputation of choking whilst on the threshold of major singles titles. Self reporting and measuring of cognitive appraisals has received uncertainty in the literature (Peacock & Wong 1990) as individuals may wish to present themselves in ways that indicate that they can cope in stressful situations regardless of their psychological state (Wiechman, Smith, Smoll & Ptacek 2000). This may be true of Novotna, her sobs at the end of the match indicated her disappointment (BBC Sport 2004) and the choking incident is still referred to, to this day (Reason 2015).
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About Helen Davis
Helen Davis is a Sport Psychology consultant. She works with individuals, groups, teams, coaches in a range of different sports from elite athletes to novices. She has been a teacher for many years and always been passionate about sport. She is a long time competitive swimmer and swims nationally and internationally as a Master.