Tanking in School

In professional Tennis, there is a phenomena where players who are behind, especially when playing with a player they expect to be not as good, start to perform so poorly it seems as though they gave up. The technical term is ‘tanking’ – and this is an offence in professional tennis that can be penalised. Now it is commonly believed that the reason for that is because they want to ‘save face’. You’re going to ask, how is it that you save face by giving up and not putting in the effort?

Well, it is the psychological distance we gain from our true self; to suggest to ourselves: “I’m a better player than my opponent is but this time I didn’t win because I didn’t try to beat him. If I did, he won’t win”. So there’s some perverse psychological twist in there. And once that internal dialogue is articulated, it isn’t so hard to relate to the phenomena. Of course, it is difficult for competition judges/officials to tell what is the internal dialogue in players and hence the offense is rarely called out.

Now in school we see this played out again and again. A child who is intelligent fails to perform well in the quizzes and tests then decides he hates the subject. The kid who refuse to study or put in the effort to do well for specific tests even as he’s fully capable of remembering the facts from his favourite entries in the encyclopedia. All these indicates that the psyche as we approach a tests or a competition matters – and it matters in a specific way. We need to strike that balance of caring enough for the winning to put in our best but not to have our identity so caught up with performance that a single failure wrecks our interest and motivation to push further entirely.

And that is a warning to a system that increasingly puts more and more stakes into formal metrics and testing, that tries to label people using these tests and then use that label for just about everything. A system where one point or a few moments in your life somewhat seem to define much more of your life. Until we acknowledge this is doing a disservice to the mental health of our populace (not just students but also parents and educators), we are going to think these things are necessary ills. No, they are not necessary.


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  1. […] wrote previously about tanking in school, where we decide to ‘opt out of effort’ in school because we are creating psychological […]