Verdasco beats Murray: How grooving can fragment

January 26, 2009
Fernando Verdasco

Fernando Verdasco

The Murray Verdasco match in the Australian Open illustrates the way in which sportsmen can lose performance standards. An explanation based on the nature of learned routines is offered

Before the match ended it was clear that Murray had lost much of his high performance standard maintained over a period of six months. Commentators were shocked at what was described as a loss of concentration.

He was in two minds

He was in two minds, a commentator observed after another poorly played point during the match. That reminded me of a whole slew of conventional wisdom of how sportsmen play in a trained mode or groove, and then how from time to time they lose it, drop out of the groove. One popular idea is ‘self one and self two’. Self one is in the groove, self two where attention is too diverted on keeping bad play at bay. The self one/ self two explanation describes what was happening as Murray’s self two crept in.

The Murray Verdasco match up had particularly clear swings of performance standards, and is worth careful study. (Swings of momentum, as the commentators called it).

The locker room phenomenon

A different explanation of form comes from the locker-room phenomenon. A player acquires a reputation that sets the beliefs before a match. There is an edge to the player assumed to be in form.

The track records

A version of the locker room phenomenon is track record. Murray’s great record against left-handers is good. Against Verdasco it is a whopping 5:0. Doubts can creep in at vital stages of the match.

Visualising for better or worse

Other folk-lore is the importance of mental rehearsal. The benefits of visualising for winning can be lost. Murray was musing on the possibility of having to win a match when he was not playing at his best. Federer himself had had to do that the previous day, coming back from two sets down. I wondered if Murray had noted that, and internalised a bit of it.

Standard operating procedures

I want to suggest an explanation from organization theory. In particular, the work on performance in high performance teams which suggests that ‘dream teams’ transcend ordinary or standard performance, by learning to develop routines or standard operating procedures beyond expectations. That work can be traced to an earlier idea that routines in individuals and teams can be changed (and improved) by a special kind of experiential learning known as creative analysis.

It is a bit of a jump to say that what applies to in business team also applies to a tennis player. But I believe it does. I also believe it applies to golfers, who seem to be grooved to improve natural talent, and for whom that grooving also breaks down and requires regular regrooving.

The fifth set

After four sets of wildly swinging moods, the score is two sets apiece. Would more mood swings decide the match?

Murray’s routines unravel

Murray’s routines unravelled. Elements of more cautious routines appeared at vital and close points. Verdasco grabbed a service break and avoided the dips in play shown in sets one and three to serve out. Murray declined in a way he seemed to have overcome.

Much more to learn

There is much more to learn about standard operating procedures but I suggest that attention to the nature of routines and their weakening would be worth while considering as ways of studying high performance and its decline under pressure

To go more deeply

I will add more technical details to this post or in a future post