Different ways to control a movement

Have you ever seen an athlete choke?

The phenomenon of choking in sports is a much studied event, particularly in sport psychology. The idea of an elite athlete failing to perform a movement on a big stage that they must have practiced thousands and thousands of times over captures our attention. Why does this happen?

The most appealing suggestion to me is the idea of reinvestment. We can control movements in a very conscious way, with deliberate attention on the muscles contracting, moving our joints. We can also control movements in a very different way: automatically. Most of our movements our controlled automatically – our attention is often on the task at hand, and not on individual limb movements. Things will often run smoothly here, but when an athlete reverts back to slow, attentional control, the movement may break down in tense environments, and this is called reinvestment.

We might reinvest because we know how important a particular moment in sport is, and therefore we try and control every little detail of say a free-throw in basketball, or a penalty kick in football. We only have so much attentional capacity though, and this is a dangerous process when we are experiencing more intense emotion or hearing shouts in the crowd that can distract us. For example, when someone first learns to drive or ride a bike, it is very hard to do anything else like talk or focus on directions. When we become more experienced, we get better at the skill itself, but also at multi-tasking, suggesting we have more attentional capacity spare.

How does he do it?; My dear boy, do you ask a fish how it swims? (No); Or an eagle how it flies? (No)


What does any of this mean for coaches? Well, it is not uncommon for us to see an elite athlete performing a skill with such prowess that we then decide we can use that as a model to coach with. We might be good at analysing each part of the model athlete’s movement, but we then decide to tell our own athlete to “move your leg like this”, “do this with your torso”, “hold your arms like this”. Trying to think of all these instructions at the same time is difficult in training, let alone in a high-stakes competition which often heightens feelings of anxiety. Furthermore, the model athlete we’ve analysed most likely is not thinking about those instructions or individual limb movements either.

Automatic systems in our brain already have the ability to move the limbs in particular ways. For example, we might walk up the stairs, flexing our hip, knee and ankle joints in one step without any need for our attention to focus on those joints bending. Or we might pick up a glass of water without ever needing to think about each individual finger movement or a muscle contraction in the arm. This means there are other ways to bring about movements, and other ways to coach our athletes to move and perform skills in more effective and more resilient ways. In Part 2, I’ll discuss how to achieve this.