Hello, I'm Jacek Olender and this is PoLoop Angielski podcast. For more materials for learners of English, go to my website, poloopangielski.pl.
Robert Lewandowski won't remember Poland's opening game at the World Cup in Qatar as the brightest moment in his excellent football career. Not only was the performance of his team disappointing, but Lewandowski himself missed the best opportunity to score the goal that could give Poland precious three points at the beginning of the tournament. His second-half penalty was way below the standard of one of the best goal-scorers in the world, and it was saved by the Mexican goalkeeper. Why am I talking about this in the podcast for learners of English, especially when it almost seems wrong to make an episode about Robert Lewandowski's failure a day after his excellent performance in the match against Saudi Arabia?. I'm only doing this to illustrate a few points about learning a foreign language.
You see, Lewandowski's failed attempt to score the goal from the penalty kick reminded me of the book I read many years ago. It was written by Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist, a psychologist best known for her research into differences between novice and expert performances. Her book, published in 2011, is about why we sometimes fail to perform at our best when it counts the most. It tries to explain why some people succeed under pressure, and others don't. The title of the book is Choke.
You probably know the word choke. When you choke or when something chokes you, you can't breathe properly or get enough air into lungs. You can choke on a piece of food while eating. You may also choke because of a strong emotion. In this case, Heimlich manoeuvre might not be needed because the person is just too emotional to speak normally. But the term choke is also used to describe the situation when someone fails to achieve something because of pressure. Choking means performing worse than you usually do because the stakes are high. Choking is what Lewandowski probably experienced when he was taking that kick from the penalty spot, 11 metres from the goal defended by Ochoa.
Let's for a moment, imagine what it might have been like to be Lewandowski at that moment. Let's imagine what was in his head just before he took that shot. Let's imagine the pressure he was under. You're one of the best strikers in the world, your team, your supporters, the whole country, are sure you can do it. You know that a penalty kick is a lottery. But the odds are in your favour, the chances of scoring a goal from the penalty are around 75%. If you're Lewandowski, they're probably higher. Your personal stakes are high too. Although you are considered to be one of the best strikers in the world, you are the all-time top goalscorer for the Polish national team, you haven't yet scored a single goal at the World Cup. Now, you have a perfect opportunity to change that. But then you think, hold on a second, what if I fail? Maybe there's some kind of jinx, some kind of magic force that once again will stop me from scoring this goal. Doubts start creeping in, your heart is in your throat. You are becoming a bag of nerves held together by a fine thread of hope. So what do you do? You try to calm yourself down and you try to think, analyse the situation, think some more, think more, think too much. You are entering the state of what Malcolm Gladwell and Sian Beilock, call paralysis by analysis, and you are about to choke. Here is what Robert Lewandowski said about the situation. That was my decision. I decided that this time I'd kick the ball hard, close to the ground, into the corner. I didn't score and it hurts. This is a penalty kick, a lottery. You can't really explain it. If you could predict what will happen. It would be much easier.
Robert is right, if we could predict what will happen, it would be much easier. But according to Sian Beilock, the very fact that people who are at the top of the game, try to think too much about what will happen, makes them fail when the stakes are high. In order to understand the mechanism, we need to understand a little bit about the brain itself. And about two kinds of memory we rely on performing various complex actions.
One is procedural memory, and the other one explicit memory. And they are very much the opposite of each other. Procedural memory is a kind of toolbox that lets us perform a complex action unconsciously. When we ride a bicycle, we don't consciously follow a checklist of actions. When you can cycle you cycle without being consciously aware of hundreds of individual elements that build this action. You do this intuitively subconsciously. That's why it is so hard to explain to someone who can't cycle how to do it. It's a skill that belongs to procedural memory, we can perform it unconsciously. What about explicit memory? This is the kind of memory which is conscious, we are aware of it, and we can access it sort of on demand. When someone asks you how to prepare your delicious soup, you're able to break down the process into individual stages and present the recipe to a friend.
Explicit memory is the knowledge we know we have, and we can consciously access it. When you are getting better at a complex task, you rely more and more on procedural memory, instead of explicit memory to perform it. You rely more and more on your subconscious mind. And when you become a master at something, you can't even explain why you are so good at it. You might believe it's just your talent, instinct, but really what's happened is that through practice, your skill's become deeply embedded in your procedural memory. And what happens when athletes, students, business people choke at tasks, that without the pressure, they would perform brilliantly, but under pressure, they can't? They make a mistake of trying to access explicit memory to guide them in the process of performing this task. They fall into the trap of paralysis by analysis.
You might ask at this point what it's all got to do with language learning? Well, a lot. I will just focus on three aspects as I see that this episode is going to be longer than I wanted it to be.
For starters, speaking a foreign language is a complex task. In the process of acquiring the skill, especially in a school environment, most students rely on explicit memory. They have the need to understand things, and it's good. They need to also realise that in the course of developing this skill, procedural memory will play a bigger role. They will be forgetting rules, but they will still use them correctly. And when they realise that they can't explain how to use the present perfect tense, but they use it correctly when it's needed, they don't need to worry, it could be the sign of actually getting to the next level. The sign of internalising the rules, making them unconscious, becoming a master, becoming a sort of Lewandowski in the field of using the present perfect tense in English.
The second lesson that we can take from Lewandowski's failed penalty kick is the importance of not falling into the trap of overthinking, falling into paralysis by analysis under stress. Many of my students, especially Polish ones, treat every situation in which they use English as a kind of test. They feel that not only their English is tested, but generally their intelligence. This creates the stress under which they do what Lewandowski did. They switch from the intuitive subconscious mode and start thinking, thinking carefully, overthinking everything, focusing too much trying to access the explicit memory. The result is choking. And it doesn't matter that they've spent many years studying English. It's the Lewandowskis who are more likely to choke, masters, not novices at something.
The third lesson is for both students And teachers. Wh en I have a conversation with a potential student , I often hear from them that they want to have a one-to-one course. They sometimes argue that one-to-one classes give them more than group classes. The teacher can focus only on their problems and they have more opportunities to talk. More often than not, however, I see that the real reason for choosing one-to-one classes is the fear of putting yourself out there and speaking English in front of the others. They know they would quickly feel comfortable talking to me when we have one-to-one classes. But what about their real life situations when they will have to speak not to one person, not a person that they trust and for whom talking to them is his job? This one-to-one set up will not prepare them for real situations, when they will have to speak to groups of people. They are fooling themselves when they believe that they can get rid of stress of speaking English when they just speak to one person, their teacher. The advice Sian Beilock gives in her book - the more you practice under a certain level o f stress the better you're prepared for real life stressful conditions. So the anxiety you might experience when you take part in group classes might actually be more beneficial than you expect. And teachers, I don't think that our obsessions with making lessons as pleasant as possible, and as stress free as possible, is always a way to go. The more the classroom conditions resemble the real life conditions, the less likely our students are to choke in real life.
So to sum up, here are the three points I want you to remember. Number one, it's not necessarily bad not to know how to do something when you do it well. Procedural memory is usually more reliable for complex tasks, then explicit one. Number two, remember that under pressure, you are more likely to overthink things and fall into the trap of paralysis by analysis. Number three, don't try to avoid stress in the process of studying. Don't believe that practising with a nap will make you a confident speaker. Get out there, speak to other people, get out of your comfort zone and learn in a small group of people. It's much more fun and could prevent you from choking in real life situations.
That brings us to the end of this episodes. I'm really interested to hear what you think about that problem. I hope that some of you might want to write to me about your own experience and share your thoughts. Drop me a line if you feel like it. You can find my email in the notes as well as the links to Sian's Beilock's book and her TED talk. Sorry for taking so much of your time today. But the topic required a little bit more time. Thank you, and hope to speak to you next week.