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bola, Sports Insights July '11: Did Nadal Choke at Wimbledon? The Anatomy of Choking

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sports Insights Magazine by Peak Performance Sports
Sports Psychology Tips for Athletes, Coaches, and Parents

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Feature Mental Game Article

Did Nadal Choke at Wimbledon? The Anatomy of Choking
By Patrick J. Cohn, Ph.D.

Mental Game Expert Dr. CohnRafael Nadal, the number two player in the world today, is known for his mental toughness on the men’s pro tennis tour. He’s won several tournaments on his aggressive style of play and mental toughness including the 2011 French Open. But last week, Djokovic defeated Nadal 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 in the 2011 Wimbledon final. Did Nadal choke in the championship match against Novak Djokovic? Was Nadal’s confidence hurting because he lost four previous matches to Djokovic? In today’s article, I’ll explain why Nadal may have choked during the final match at Wimbledon and what I think constitutes choking in sports.

I don't think anyone would say Nadal is a choker... But according to Nadal himself, his confidence took a hit from four previous loses he suffered to Djokovic. Nadal stated that confidence is key especially when playing the important points of the match. “I started the final match without thinking [about the previous loses to Novak]. But when you arrive to 5-4 in the set, these [critical] moments, it probably affects you a little bit. That's what happened, and that's why,” Nadal explained after losing.

I think the previous wins was a mental advantage for Djokovic, which helped him to win the Championship in four sets. Novak said that winning the previous matches gave him more confidence to win the critical points or play well during the tough moments in the match. In addition, Novak used mental imagery to recall when he performed well against Nadal in previous matches and why. “Probably, you know, because I have won four times, consecutive times, in the finals against him this year. So I had that in the back of my mind. I was trying to take myself back to those matches and really perform the same way that I performed those days in those matches: aggressive, taking my chances, not giving him opportunity to take over the control,” said Djokovic after winning Wimbledon.

You can’t take anything away from Novak Djokovic’s performance. He played incredible during the first two sets and was playing the best tennis of his career (48-1 for 2011 so far). Could anyone beat him the way he was performing in the first two sets? When you are performing at the top of your game, you force your opponents into changing their game plan or approach…

My observation is that Djokovic’s aggressive and consistent style of play forced Nadal into playing defensive tennis and hitting more low-percentage shots, maybe stepping out of his normal attack game plan, which lead to uncharacteristic errors by Nadal and lots of winners by Novak. “I played short because I played short I think today. He's doing great. He's doing a lot of things fantastic. But I had to play better to win, and I didn't today. I played a little bit less aggressive,” conceded Nadal after he was asked if Djokovic forced him to play short.

But here’s what leads me to believe that Nadal might have choked in this match. Or maybe I should say he choked based on Nadal’s own standards of mental toughness. Everyone knows how great he is when his back is against the wall and what type of shots he can hit during the important moments or points of the match, such as break points or game points. However, Nadal conceded that he did not play the important points well in this match. He confessed that the mental part is “a little bit dangerous for me.”


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“The most important thing, to win in matches here, to win tough matches like today, like two days ago, is to play well the important moments. There are a few points in the match that can change the match, and I didn't today. Probably the mental part is little bit dangerous for me, because when I arrive to the 5-4, I played a bad game with 30-Love. When I arrived to 4-3 of the fourth set, I played another bad game with my serve. That's what I say: to win these kind of matches, I have to play well in these kind of points, they can change the match. When I had the breakpoint at the first set, at the first game of the fourth set, I didn't play well that point. But these three times, that's what happened. And to change that is probably be little bit less nervous than these times, play more aggressive, and all the time be confident with myself. That's what I gonna try next time,” said Nadal after the lost.

You might question: how does not playing the big points of the match qualify as a choke? You feel pressure when you have to come through on big points or important plays -- the ones that can change the outcome of a match. You come to a point in the game when you realize you have to make a big play to turn the game or match around. Did the pressure get to Nadal in the big points and cause him to under preform? Yes, I think so, but only because of the style of tennis Djokovic played: he was controlling the match.

Let’s back up and allow me to discuss what choke really means in sports. The term “choke” comes from the concept that you feel like you can’t breath – or someone is strangling you – when under pressure; a lack of oxygen. But choking has a wider meaning to me. Choking happens when you get in your own way mentally or your mind prevents you from performing at your best. In most cases, athletes experience physical changes, such as tension, increased heart rate, and rapid breathing. Athletes also report mental changes, such as anxiety, fear, apprehension, and confusion. Athletes often change their strategy when choking.

Most athletes and coaches would agree that choking happens when you are firmly in command of your performance or the competition and you lose because of a change in your mental state or a mental meltdown. You feel pressure or suddenly lose confidence, such as when Rory McIlroy lost a big lead and shot a 43 on the back nine during the final round of the Masters tournament. Athletes who choke will lose a big lead because they are fearful of not finishing off the game or they perform tentatively or defensively and lose trust in their skills.

But I think athletes can also choke at the start of the competition. They might feel intimidated or have a lot of doubt interrupting their mental processes. They proceed to play scared or afraid to lose and thus can’t perform with trust in their skills.

Based on my definition, did Nadal choke? When I look at his comments after the tournament, I would have to say, for Rafael Nadal, this was a choke. However, I think Nadal was reacting to the quality of the play of Djokovic. Novak put a seed of doubt into his mind prior to Wimbledon when he beat Nadal four times in a row. This became a factor for Nadal when playing the important points of the match; the ones that can determine the outcome of the match.

I also give credit to Novak for beating Nadal at his own game: an aggressive style of play and forcing Nadal to play defense, which I think lead him to make more errors. This was Djokovic’s game plan from the start. “You got to take the chances, you know. In those moments, you have to believe that you can do it, not wait for your opponent to make a mistake,” said Novak Djokovic after winning.

Nadal was able to rationalize losing and like a good champion use this lose as a springboard to improve his game. “He's in the best moment of his career. That's true, too. I am in one of the best moments of my career. Still not enough for him. I have to play longer. I have to play more aggressive. I have to have less mistakes. I understand the sport is like this. When one player is better than you, at this moment the only thing you can do is work, try to find solutions, and wait a little bit for your time,” said Nadal.

For tips on how to avoid choking, visit Peaksports Network Online Mental Training System.

Sports Specific Mental Training Tip

In April at the Masters, Rory McIlroy had one of the worst days of his life: He shot a final round 80 at the Masters and blew a six-stroke final round lead. Two month later at the US Open McIlroy blows away the field and wins in record fashion. Many golfers would have nightmares after experiencing a final round meltdown and most likely be super hard on themselves. Instead, McIlroy turned it into a character-building experience, which is a great lesson in reframming a negative experience into a learning opportunity.

"You know, it's going to be hard to take for a few days, but I'll get over it. I'm fine…. This is my first experience at it, and hopefully the next time I'm in this position, I'll be able to handle it a little better. I didn't handle it particularly well today obviously, but it was a character-building day, put it that way. I'll come out stronger for it."

~ Rory McIlroy, US Open Champion

Podcasts of the Month

Sports Psychology PodcastSports Psychology Podcast of the Month!
In this week’s sports psychology podcast, mental game of sports expert, Dr. Patrick Cohn, answers a mental toughness question from one of his readers on how to perform as well in soccer games as well as his practice. This athlete is loose and has fun in practice, but struggles with negative thinking in games.

In The Sports Psychology Podcast, Dr. Cohn helps athletes, performers, and business professionals get the most out of their performance. Listen to this month’s sports psychology podcast to learn how to overcome negative thinking and fear of failure in sports and other mental game barriers that limit their performance.

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Golf Psychology PodcastThe Golf Psychology Podcast of the Month!
Dr. Patrick Cohn, golf psychology expert and author of the “Golfer’s Mental Edge” CD program, teaches amateur to tour professional golfers how to improve their mental game of golf using golf psychology strategies developed over the last 20 years of his career.

In this week’s golf psychology session, mental game of golf expert and author of The Mental Game of Golf, Dr. Cohn, teaches you how fear of failure can affect your performance on the golf course and what fear of failure is.

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Athlete Quote of the Month

"I'm a big proponent of sports psychology."

"I've been a big proponent of sports psychology for a long time, actually. I know they talk about the things that I do to prepare myself."

~Jeff Burton


Video of the Month

How to Help Young Athlete Cope with Frustration

AskDoc on Youtube

Sports psychology expert, Dr. Patrick Cohn of Peak Performance Sports, LLC answers a mental game question from a baseball sports parent in a new series titled, “Ask Doc.” This parent wants to know how to help his athlete deal with frustration and not check out when he makes mistakes. This is a very common question from sports parents: How do I help my kid when he gets upset with mistakes or poor plays?

Visit sports psychology blog to watch the video.

Ask Doc Cohn

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Cross Country and Track Athlete:

I run cross country and track. I perform well during practices, but when it comes to meets, I don't perform up to par. I think this could be from nervousness, and fear of failing. I am hopefully going to be a captain and from a recent sickness, I don't want to be a low varsity/upper tier JV runner. What can I do, and how can I relax? I'm afraid of disappointing my teammates, however I know I can do well but just can't get the right mindset.

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Dr. Patrick J. Cohn
Master Mental Game Coach

Mental Game Expert Dr. CohnDr. Patrick J. Cohn is the President and founder of Peak Performance Sports of Orlando, Florida. He earned his Ph.D. in Education from the University of Virginia in 1991, and founded Peak Performance Sports in 1994. Dr. Cohn is an author, speaker and one of the nation's leading mental game experts. His coaching programs instill confidence, composure and effective mental strategies that enable athletes and teams to reach their performance goals. Dr. Cohn has helped athletes from a variety of sports backgrounds (both amateurs and professionals) identify and develop the mindset needed to achieve peak performance. World-class golfers, runners, shooters and auto racers, as well as motocross, tennis, baseball, softball, football and hockey players, are among those who have benefited from his mental game coaching and training.

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