Choking: What is it and How to Avoid it

by Noah Gentner, PhD, CC-AASP, USOC Registry of Sport Psych. Consultants

In the days following the U.S. Women’s shocking loss to Japan in the World Cup Final the most common refrain heard on TV and radio or read on the internet was, “Wow, what a choke job.”  The widely held belief was that the U.S. had choked on the biggest stage in the world.  It was a pretty simple conclusion to make considering the fact that they lost a 1-0 lead in regulation, gave up a 2-1 lead with a few minutes left in extra time, and missed their first three penalty kicks in the shootout.  It perfectly fit the equation for choking:

Big competition/moment + opportunity for success + poor outcome = Choke

For years we have accepted this equation for choking.  Anytime someone had a negative outcome in a big event or moment in which they had a chance to win, we quickly classified it as a choke.  Greg Norman at the 1996 Master’s, Bill Buckner in the ’86 World Series, LeBron James in this year’s NBA Finals: all were classified as choking.  Starting Sunday evening it appeared that the U.S. Women would be part of that list.  There’s only one problem, there’s something wrong with our current equation for choking.  It draws a direct connection between an outcome and choking.  In other words, it assumes that we can identify choking simply by a negative outcome.  If Team A played poorly when given an opportunity to win a big game then they must have choked.  Podium once interviewed Dr. Sam Maniar on the differences between the choke and the panic.  As it turns out, he doesn’t agree with the formula.  Do you?

This is an entirely too simplistic view of choking.  To really understand choking we need to dig a little deeper.  The first step is dispelling the myth that poor outcomes equate to choking.  First of all, failure is a natural consequence of sports.  Players miss shots, drop passes, or make errors; sometimes these happen in big competitions.  Michael Jordan is famous for saying that he missed thousands of shots in his career and countless times he was asked to take a game-winning shot and missed.  Would we refer to him as a choker?  Great baseball players fail 70% of the time so when a player flies out with the bases loaded, down one run in the bottom of the 9th did he choke or was it just a natural part of the game?  The reality is that players don’t always perform well in big moments.  The final shot doesn’t always drop, the final pass often falls incomplete, and occasionally players strike out to end a game.  Just because a player did not achieve his/her desired outcome does not necessarily mean s/he choked.  Once we accept that failure, in and of itself, is not choking we can start to develop a new definition of choking.

So, if choking isn’t simply failing in a big moment then what is it?  Within the field of Sport Psychology we define choking as a failure to prepare yourself to be successful.  More specifically, choking is when a player allows situational, environmental, or psychological factors to inhibit their performance.  Based on that definition, choking is not identified by the outcome but rather by the athlete’s preparation and ability to deal with the moment.  Athletes choke when they fail to prepare themselves to succeed in a big moment.  Of course, that often leads to poor outcomes but the choke happens long before the outcome.  We all know that players perform at their best when they are in the proper physical and mental state and have the appropriate focus.  Big moments tend to challenge our ability to stay relaxed, confident, and focused.  When we allow the environment or situation to negatively impact us we are less likely to perform well and that is the choke.  That is why we don’t consider Jordan to be a choker because we know that he was prepared (i.e., confident, relaxed, focused, etc.) to make those big shots.  He just missed because even the great players miss sometimes.  LeBron James on the other hand seemed to shrink in the 4th quarters of the NBA Finals and appeared unprepared to be successful.  He became a casual observer on offense, stopped looking for his shot, and generally stopped playing like himself.  He let the moment get to him and that was the choke.

Possibly the greatest example of choking came in the 1993 NCAA Championship game between Michigan and North Carolina.  We all know the story:  Chris Webber called a timeout when his team had none remaining which resulted in a technical foul and ultimately sealed the game for UNC.   Why do we define that as a choke?  It is clear that Webber let the moment get to him and was unprepared to be successful.  He lost focus and became visibly anxious.  Upon grabbing the rebound he clearly traveled and then, in a panic, rushed up court and called the timeout.  He did not respond like an All-American but rather like a nervous middle school kid.  In the moment he was unprepared to succeed and thus, he choked.

So, what about the U.S. soccer team, did they choke?  The ultimate answer is that we don’t really know.  However, we do know that they didn’t choke simply because they lost two leads and missed some penalty kicks.  Unless we can speak with them to learn what was going through their minds late in that game and in the shootout we may never know if they choked.  Did they lose focus late in the game?  Did they prematurely begin thinking about their celebration or the enormity of winning the World Cup?  Were they so dejected after the game that they were unable to focus on their penalty kicks?  Without the answers to these questions we can’t possibly know if they choked.

All of this leads us to a new equation for choking:

Big competition/moment + opportunity for success + failure to prepare oneself to be successful and deal with the moment = choke

Of course now that we have updated our definition of choking the question is no longer about whether or not the U.S. choked but rather: How do we avoid choking?  First, it is important to note one dramatic difference between the old and new definitions of choking.  In the initial equation choking was defined by a poor outcome.  As we have already discussed, poor outcomes are a very common part of sports.  They are also out of our control.  Sometimes we do everything right and the shot just doesn’t drop, our teammate makes a mistake, or the opponent makes a great play.  Based on the old definition of choking that means that we have no control over whether or not we choke and that is scary.  However, if we look at the new definition of choking we can see that we can control the choke.  We can prepare ourselves to be successful and deal with the moment.  We can stay relaxed, confident, and focused.  That control can be very empowering…now we can decide whether or not we choke.  Based on that here are a few tips to avoid choking:

  • Prepare yourself for big competitions by developing relaxation strategies which can be utilized throughout the game
  • Practice imagery where you see yourself performing well in big situations.  This will increase your confidence and ability to deal with the moment when it arises
  • Develop pre-performance routines which you can use in all situations (e.g., pre-shot routine, pre-game routine).  These routines will build your confidence and give you something to focus on during important moments
  • Identify important focus cues for your performance which you can repeat to yourself throughout the game.  Things like, “Stay low,” “Quick feet,” and “Follow through,” can remind you of what you need to do to be successful
  • Employ opportunity-based thinking rather than threat-based thinking.  Start viewing big games and moments as great opportunities rather than threats.  In his speech before the game against Russia in the movie Miracle, Herb Brooks says, “Great moments are born out of great opportunity.”  By viewing big moments as great opportunities you will increase your confidence and lower you anxiety

 

 

 

Noah Gentner, Ph.D., CC-AASP is a Professor in the Fitness and Health Promotion, Exercise Science and Lifestyle Management program at Humber College in Toronto, Canada.  He received his Ph.D. in Sport Psychology from the University of Tennessee in 2004 and has served as a Department Chair/Assistant Professor at Tennessee Wesleyan College and later  he accepted a position as an Assistant Professor of Exercise and Sport Sciences at Ithaca College.  During his four years at IC he helped coordinate the undergraduate and graduate programs in Sport Psychology.  In 2009 he took a position at Georgia Southern University where he coordinated the Master’s program in Sport Psychology and taught undergraduate and graduate courses in Sport Psychology and Coaching Education.  Dr. Gentner has published research in several journals and has given presentations on Sport Psychology at worldwide and regional Sport Psychology, Coaching, and Athletic Training Conferences.  Currently he is completing a book on Sport Psychology Consulting techniques.  He is an Association for Applied Sport Psychology Certified Consultant and since 2000 he has worked with individual athletes, teams, and coaches ranging from youth sport to professional levels.  For further inquiries or information about Dr. Gentner’s services or the programs at Humber College he can be reached at [email protected] or 416-675-6622 ext. 4406.

5 thoughts on “Choking: What is it and How to Avoid it

  • January 29, 2013 at 6:11 am
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    What would be your number one advice if someone has seen his/her sport as the main balance in life (re work, stress etc) and “all of a sudden” cannot pursue any sport any more, ie injury, accident etc.

    I know this is a request for an imposible answer, or is it?

    Could you please try?

    Thank you,

    H Albrecht, Australia.

    Reply
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