Pressure in Sport, do athletes unlearn skills?No Opinions
10,000 hours, this is the number many researchers have advocated that it takes for athletes to master their craft. Day in, day out, athletes practice to fine tune their skills to ensure that when the moment matters, they can deliver on the biggest stage. So why is it that athletes crumble and fail to deliver these mastered skills when all eyes are on them? Due to the demands of different sports and events, each have their own unique set of internal and external demands, these can range from external demands from spectators and coaches, to a more internal self expectancy. If the athlete perceives these demands in a negative light, they will perceive that scenario in a stressful fashion which is quantified as a stressor by Nicholls and colleagues in 2009. Due to this stressor, it is clear to see that athletes ‘unlearn’ that 10,000 hours worth of training and in essence for that moment become ordinary.
One of the clearest recent examples of this phenomenon is the Euro 2016 tournament where England suffered a surprise defeat to Iceland. Many fans may remember this game and recall the shock nature of the result and suggest the England national team merely ‘bottled it’, however, the psychological processes which underpinned that performance were of significant relevance. Watching the later stages of the game unfold, it was clear to see what was occurring, as the game approached the later stages, the England players were engulfed by external stimulus’s and in turn started to unlearn the skills which they have spent hours, days, months and years fine tuning. This can be evidenced in a number of ways, firstly England mustered a huge amount of shots towards goal as can be seen in Reference 1, however, not only were the shots taken from areas on the pitch where no professional football player would expect to score from, the shots missed the target by some margin.
My sentiments here are echoed by the BBC Sport’s chief football writer Phil McNulty who used the following quotes to describe some of the England players attacking players performance who were tasked with saving the nations blushes:
- ‘Never seen so many passes go astray in the second half.’
- ‘Complete nightmare. Missed a good headed chance in the second half and took a collection of the worst free-kicks and set-pieces seen at this level.’
These comments confirm that the England players psychological state of mind melted in the cauldron of the Stade De Nice on the night of Monday the 27th June 2016. Indeed what we saw that very night unfold before our very eyes was a crystal clear example of the processing efficiency theory proposed by (Eysenck & Calvo, 1992). This theory has two parts, the first focuses on performance effectiveness which is straightforward to quantify as this can be measured through accuracy of athletes or indeed a teams performance, the second is a little less straightforward. Processing efficiency is based on the relationship between two things, performance effectiveness and the effort and resources used to reach that level of performance. Essentially the pressure built up during performance can be quantified as anxiety, it is this very emotion which targets the working memory system (WMS) in our brain. This system can be broken down into 4 sections, however for the purposes of what we are examining here i will be focusing my attention on two of these. At the top of this system lies the central executive, this system is tasked with planning, tactics and other complex functions. The second element of the WMS i want to focus on is the phonological loop which is involved in the repetition of words and phases along with visual stimulus. In regards to the former of these systems, it is this which suffers the most impact when anxiety/stressors strike, there is also a small impact on the phonological loop.
In sum, it is indeed the WMS which is responsible for the significant reduction in performance which we saw on that night of June 27th. The expectancy in which the players placed on themselves coupled with the weight of the nations expectations resulted in players such as Harry Kane taking a free kick which was closer to the corner flag than the goal. This negative perception of the demands of the event caused these elite athletes to unlearn the skills which they have spent over 10,000 hours mastering.
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About Carl Brown
Sports lecturer based in the West Midlands, MSc in Sport Psychology, interested in coping mechanisms under pressure in sport