September 11, 2012 7:27 pm

Murray breaks run of sporting ‘chokers’

Britain's Andy Murray kisses his US Open trophy©Reuters

Britain's Andy Murray kisses his trophy after defeating Serbia's Novak Djokovic in the men's singles final match at the US Open tennis tournament in New York

His US Open success under his belt, Andy Murray said he hoped he had laid to rest the notion that “British tennis players choke”.

The art of choking, that unfathomable capacity of sportspeople to suffer a mental meltdown when the moment of victory is at hand, is neither peculiar to Britain nor to tennis.

Golfers do it, darts players do it, so do footballers in penalty shoot-outs. The careers of French golfer Jan de Velde and Czech tennis player Jana Novotna are remembered for their psychological collapse at moments of extreme pressure.

But in a country that makes a virtue out of “the glorious British failure”, these isles have produced a sizeable clutch of chokers – none more so than golfer Rory McIlroy, who blew a four-stroke lead going into the final round of last year’s US Masters.

This sporting summer, beginning with Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France triumph, sustained by Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic champions and capped by Murray’s success in New York, would seem to have banished those demons.

For Murray, the demons were an especial problem. He has achieved much in the game, but his inability to win a grand slam event perpetuated the idea that he, too, was a choker.

In the moments leading up to his bruising five-set final on Monday against defending champion Novak Djokovic, the memories of painful defeats in his four previous grand slam finals were returning to haunt him.

“I was still doubting myself right up to a few minutes before going on to play the match,” he said. “It’s something I have never done before. I have been in this position many times and not managed to get through.”

As Murray squandered a two-set lead to Djokovic, the demons looked to have returned. But his ruthless dismantling of his rival in the deciding set suggested a mental fortitude hitherto lacking in the Scot.

In the language of sports psychologists. Murray had “controlled the controllable aspects of his game”, said Roberto Forzoni, who has in the past held one-to-one sessions with the player. “He worked his way through it. A few years ago he wouldn’t have had the mental capacity to focus on what he had to do.”

Mr Forzoni and others noted during the match a markedly different reaction to adversity from Murray than before. “A year ago, his head would have been down, he would have been screaming at his team,” he said.

“Murray has always talked to himself out loud, but it was more negative in the past. This time, he was more affirmative.”

That mental control helped Murray better manage his expending of energy, said Chris Harwood, reader in applied sports psychology at Loughborough University and a consultant for the Lawn Tennis Association.

“That is a skill that most mentally tough players have down to a T,” Mr Harwood said. “They are able to coach themselves to focus on the next point, rather than the flaws of the previous point.”

There is a body of academic work on what causes choking and how to combat it. The solution, Mr Harwood said, is to use cognitive behavioural techniques, such as relaxation exercises, managing heart rate and visualisation. The athlete also needs to be thrown into stressful situations on the training pitch.

Psychologists are retained on a regular basis by sports teams. But there is none in Team Murray.

“He never really wanted to work with the psychological aspects of his game,” said Mr Forzoni. “His perception was working with sports psychologists showed weakness.”

Perhaps it is because of his new coach Ivan Lendl, the former grand slam champion, that Murray has been able to control his demons. Whoever is responsible has helped convert Murray from choker to champion.

FROM CRICKET ARENA TO OFFICE

Jeremy Snape can recall bowling well at the legendary Sachin Tendulkar in front of 100,000 screaming Indian cricket fans at Eden Gardens, Kolkata, in 2002, writes Roger Blitz. But the rest of that match was a blur.

“I ran Freddie Flintoff out and played the worst shot in my life,” the former England international said of his own choking experience. “I know that it wasn’t me that played it.”

Coping with pressure is a skill that applies as much to the boardroom and the shop floor as the sporting arena, said Mr Snape who has a MSc in sports psychology and is a director of consultancy Sporting Edge. It is an example of a business where sports psychologists apply their insights to the workplace.

It conducts interviews with coaches such as British cycling’s Dave Brailsford and athletes including Mo Farah, for insights on “mental toughness” and aspects of sporting performance.

“You have sales teams dealing with delivering increased targets under severe constraints, traders taking more emotional decisions in high-pressure situations,” Mr Snape said.

The solution in both sport and business is the same, he added – “being rational and being immersed in the task, rather than worrying about the consequences down the line”.

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