Matthew Syed: buckling under pressure, how to overcome it and ‘Black Box Thinking’

The story of how Matthew Syed came to be a professional table tennis player, buckled under pressure at the critical moment, and then wrote his bestselling book Black Box Thinking, is one of the most interesting case points of how psychological sports can be. His book theorises how failure should be constructive rather than restrictive.

During an interview with Elizabeth Day on her podcast, How To Fail, Syed spoke of growing up in Reading, discovering his love of table tennis at a young age and the pressure from his Pakistani parents of doing something ‘serious’ with his life- like law or medicine.

Having graduated from Oxford in PPE (Politics, Psychology and Economics), Syed went on to establish himself as the top ranked player in England for almost 10 years, reaching number 25 in the world in 1998.

It was during the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona when Syed was representing Great Britain in the men’s single that he ‘choked’, as he puts it in a BBC article on why some people buckle under pressure and some people don’t.

The brilliantly mundane analogy that Syed uses to best explain the psychology behind choking is when somebody is walking along “A narrow path with a 10,000 foot precipice on either side.” Syed explains that it is when we think about, “How we are moving our feet, the angle of our tread, the precise footfall on the path,” that we are most likely to fall.

The same analogy can be applied to getting “tongue-tied” on a date, says Syed, or failing to perform during an exam. Our natural instinct is to do as best as we possibly can, and the pressure we consequently put on ourselves causes us to seize up.

So what is Syed’s remedy? He argues that, since it is the ‘conscious’ part of the brain that causes us to choke, we must learn to trust our ‘subconscious competence’: this means essentially making ourselves as familiar as possible with the situation at hand (i.e revising lots for an exam and thoroughly knowing the subject, practicing the sports game, preparing well for an interview and anticipating the questions, it could even mean going on lots of dates: though don’t take my advice on this one).

Syed also suggests gaining perspective in big pressured moments and remembering that life will go on if you don’t perform well. He describes how at one competition he could hear an opponent mutter under his breath: "It is only bloody ping pong!." In a particularly touching part of his interview with Elizabeth Day, Syed describes his own method: he pictures his parents and remembers that they will continue to love him, no matter how well he does.

Syed’s extraordinary life journey is itself a manifestation of his theory: if you fail, or choke under pressure, pick yourself up again and seize on it as an opportunity.

Syed’s extraordinary life journey is itself a manifestation of his theory

Black Box Thinking

Much of Syed’s research culminates with his theory on Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success; and it’s really interesting to study when thinking about how to pick yourself from failure in sports games.

As a theory of the pressures surrounding performing- sporting and otherwise - Black Box Thinking takes its name and concept from aircraft safety procedures. ‘Black boxes’ are essentially flight recorders: when an accident happens with a plane, the box in the cockpit helps investigate what went wrong, by recording the recent details of the flight and the voices of the pilots.

Syed’s central point is that, just as planes are well-prepared to learn from their mistakes through astonishingly forward-thinking safety nets, so too should humans learn to confront their errors. By doing so, they equip themselves to better succeed in the future.

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