Armchair Pundit

Torres’s choking problem

Alex Chick

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in April, I wrote about Fernando Torres's struggles, insisting he is far from
finished at the top level and suggesting the root lay in Chelsea's tactics.

But following a dispiriting outing in today's 1-0 friendly win against a weak
Malaysia All-Star side, it is hard not to conclude that Torres's problems exist
overwhelmingly inside his own head.

Chelsea were set up perfectly for their number nine - he played through the
middle, with good support from Salomon Kalou and Florent Malouda, and no Didier

was as though Andre Villas-Boas's top priority from the game was to get a goal
for Torres - which given the importance of the Spaniard rediscovering his form,
may well have been the case.

played well in his 45-minute appearance, but fell apart every time he had a
glimpse of goal.

In Matthew Syed's book Bounce (about a year too late, admittedly), he draws together various theories on what makes a sportsman successful.

an illuminating chapter on choking, he explains that top sportsmen and women
have their technique built so firmly into their brain that they almost
literally do not have to think about what they are doing.

use implicit memory, which has been honed by years of practice, to take the
shot - a bit like driving a car, which most people can do without paying much
attention to their multi-tasking.

is called expert-induced amnesia, and it allows sportsmen to use the conscious
part of their brain on other tasks, such as watching the goalkeeper's movement
in order to find the opposite corner.

occurs when players become so anxious and pressurised they try to use the
explicit memory used by novices - as you do when you are learning the basics -
and consequently they tend to play like them.

is a persuasive theory, and in the case of Torres would explain his woes thus:

confident, calm Torres, when presented with a one-on-one in the second minute,
would have swept the ball into the net without a second - or even a first -
thought. If a top goalscorer's finishing appears automatic, that's because it
is. Instead, the Chelsea man sidefooted it straight at the goalkeeper.

was nothing wrong with Torres's all-round game. His movement and touch were
good, and at one point he nutmegged his man with apparent insouciance - but when
he ran onto the ball and took his shot his explicit thoughts took over and
stilted his execution.

of course, you might point out that no other Chelsea player was able to hit the
net (the game's only goal went in off the Malaysian goalkeeper), and that Frank
Lampard and Daniel Sturridge squandered chances every bit as easy as Torres's.

the verdict that Torres is playing without confidence does not stem from 45
minutes of pre-season friendly alone.

can be drawn from seven miserable months in a Chelsea shirt that have brought
just one goal and countless missed chances.

any case, the point is not that confidence and implicit execution, from which
Lampard and Sturridge presumably benefited, do not guarantee success - but they
do make it more likely.

players with a generally positive outlook are less likely to be deterred by a
single failure - next time Sturridge gets a one-on-one, he will focus on the
possibility of success rather than the memory of his previous miss.

leads to a loss of confidence, which in turn makes further failure more likely.

how to reverse this vicious cycle?

would think pre-season run-outs against weak opposition would provide the
perfect opportunity to rediscover the scoring knack, yet Torres faltered.

if you're not even confident against a Malaysian 'All-Star' side that has
already been whomped by Arsenal and Liverpool... well, you've got a problem.

also writes that many sportsmen actually benefit from overestimating their own
ability - an iron conviction that you are the best in the world makes success
more likely, even if your belief is false.

appears to be suffering from the opposite problem. He really is one of the world's best. We have all
seen the evidence.

yet, in his head, he is a pub player.

Ancelotti's inability to solve this conundrum contributed to the loss of his
job; Torres is already the most pressing issue for the new manager Villas Boas.

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