The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

Steve Blass Disease, Steve Sax Syndrome

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Steve Blass Disease, Steve Sax Syndrome

Though not focused on the relation between anxiety and choking, the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus supports the idea that at an expert level of performance, attention to and conscious control over one’s actions degrades performance, in part by citing the fate of New York Yankees' former second baseman, Chuck Knoblauch. As I mentioned in Chapter Two, Knoblauch, a Gold Glove-winning player at what would seem to be the height of his career, suddenly developed severe throwing problems, sometimes being barely able to toss the ball, and at other times throwing it outrageously far out of bounds (2007a: p. 355). What happened to Knoblauch? Dreyfus's analysis of the situation is that Knoblauch was thinking too much: as Dreyfus puts it, he “couldn't resist stepping back and being mindful” (ibid.: 354). Expert skill, according to Dreyfus, is “nonminded,” and Knoblauch’s trouble, as Dreyfus sees it, is that he tried to think about what should be happening automatically (ibid.). The journalist Malcom Gladwell presents a similar analysis. Just like the 2005 WTA Tour champion tennis player tennis player Jana Novotna who “faltered at Wimbledon…because she began thinking about her shots again,” Gladwell tells us, Knoblauch, “under the stress of playing in front of forty thousand fans at Yankee Stadium, [found] himself reverting to explicit mode” (2000: p. 85).

John McDowell, who challenges Dreyfus’s view that when Knoblauch played at his best his actions were not conceptualized, agrees. On McDowell’s view, even though in throwing efficiently to first base, Knoblauch was “realizing a concept of a thing to do,” he lost his ability because he “started thinking about ‘the mechanics,’ about how throwing efficiently to first base is done” (2007b: p. 367). More generally, McDowell (2007b) tells us, “this kind of loss of skill comes about when the agent’s means-end rationality tries, so to speak, to take over control of the details of her bodily movements, and it cannot do as good a job at that as the skill itself used to do” (ibid.: p. 367-8).

Although Dreyfus, McDowell, and various journalists seem to agree that Knoblauch’s utter failure was due to his attempt to explicitly analyze or think about his movements, there is little indication that Knoblauch, or any of the other major league players who have suffered similar fates—“Steve Sax Syndrome,” for fielders, “Steve Blass Disease” for pitchers—believe that the cause of their throwing problems is related to their thinking about what they are doing. Rather, they tend to say that they don't know why they can't throw and, indeed, Knoblauch has criticized the media's claim to understand the cause of his condition.74 Moreover, from what I gather, the origin of Steve Blass Disease is very much an open question within the scientific community, and the few theories that do attempt to account for it do not attribute it to misplaced thinking. For example, Adler (2007) speculates that some cases of the disease could involve a focal dystonia, a neurological condition involving involuntary muscle contractions. David Grand and Alan Goldberg (2011) argue that it is a form of post-traumatic stress, and that players who suffer from it are holding earlier traumas in their bodies, and treat it by, in part, desensitizing them to the trauma.  

Moreover, for some, at least, the condition does not seem to have been brought about because of anxiety over doing well. Steve Blass, in his autobiography (Blass and Sherman, 2012), talks about being confident at first that the problem would work itself out:

It was not bad in the beginning by any stretch, and my struggles were more of a gradual decline. I had had slumps before and I didn’t have any particular anxiety early in the season…so I thought, OK. It’s not working now, but we’ll get it straightened out. We’ll be fine. Just keep throwing and it’ll click. It’ll take care of itself. (p. 10)
So his case, at least does not seem to fit Beilock’s and others’ models, according to which pressure causes skill-focused attention, which itself impedes performance. Nonetheless, things did get worse, and Blass found himself pondering what could be wrong:
There were a lot of nights when I would just come home and sit in the backyard wondering why all this stuff was going on and what was happening. I’d try to find out if in quiet times I could sort it all out, but I just couldn’t. (p. 12-13)
It would seem that if overthinking were part of the cause of his problems, this would have occurred to him, but although in his book he mentions numerous other theories about what was causing what he called his “control problem,” never once does he mention that it might have been due to thinking too much about what he was doing. As he says,
I tried every possible remedy for my control problems. There were times when we had two projectors showing me pitching good and showing me pitching bad side-by side, looking for clues on how to improve my mechanics. (p. 19)
He took part in a visualization process, where he visualized the ball going out of his hand to where he wanted it to go (p. 19); he tried transcendental meditation, which was popular at the time; and—after he received a letter from a hunter who claimed that the only time his aim was off was when his underwear was too tight—he even tried wearing looser underwear. But nowhere in the book does he say that he tried to think less about what he was doing.

What was he aware of during these games when everything would fall apart? He does say that he was distracted:

Before my control problem I had the ability to just concentrate on the immediate task at hand, which is a wonderful thing for an athlete. I could block out family, world hunger, or anything that was going on, because of that focus. That focus all went away and everything was occurring in my mind. I was like an antenna. (p. 23)
Although throughout the book he emphasizes that that the disease named after him is inexplicable, this account, if anything, sounds like the problem has to do with not thinking too much about his actions, but rather with not being able to think enough about them.

His story does have a conclusion, since after [such and such number of years] he did find a cure, which he describes as involving stepping out of the certain type of pattern he had fallen into. Ultimately, Blass claims that he came to see his problem specifically as “not a psychological problem” (p. 213).

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