12 September 2021

Unforced errors

In the tradition of previous Chess vs. Tennis posts, here is another one with an insight for chessplayers, excerpted from The Economist (Sept 11, 2021) article "All Too Human", which leads off talking about Naomi Osaka's collapse after being ahead at this year's U.S. Open tennis tournament:

...Yet the way her fortunes turned at the US Open, with one mistake begetting another, turns out to be common. A recent paper by David Harris, Samuel Vine and Mark Wilson of the University of Exeter and Michael Eysenck of Royal Holloway University of London finds that top-tier tennis players are surprisingly prone to mistakes caused by situation driven anxiety...

The taxonomy of shots in tennis helps to isolate the impacts of consistency and risk appetite. When a player misses a routine shot and loses a point, it is scored as an "unforced error" (UE). Conversely, shots that bounce within the court without being touched by an opponent are "winners".

...In high-pressure contexts such as break and set points, UEs were 15% more common than under less stressful situations. Similarly, during points following UEs, the chances of a repeat blunder rose sharply. These effects reinforced each other, so that UEs were even more common during high-pressure points following a prior UE than you would otherwise expect.

I don't think it's very surprising to find that high-stress moments tend to lead to more mistakes, even at an elite level. However, I find it more interesting to see the study's observations that these mistakes do indeed tend to subsequently reinforce themselves, which can result in a downward spiral of performance. While this could also be considered "common sense", having an acute awareness of these types of situations can be important for a player, who may then choose to consciously focus on their mental toughness in an effort to combat a further downhill slide in their game.

This finding is consistent with what I've seen over the years in analyzing both my own games and those at the master level. Often I've found that a series of sometimes small mistakes - or perhaps even just failures to play better moves - can sometimes then suddenly lead to much more significant blunders when under pressure from an opponent. Blunder recovery is then extremely important and often quite possible, even when down material or under heavy positional pressure, again underlining the importance of mental toughness to the ultimate result of the game. Recently in Annotated Game #255 I had just such a moment for recovery, but was unable to find the drawing line at the board. That was just one of many opportunities that I've seen occur, even in "losing" games, so the old advice to never give up until you are actually beaten remains good.

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