Choking? Are you sure?


Choking happens. It’s that terrible feeling of over-thinking, when you take conscious control of skills that have been completely autonomous for years. Your conscious mind hasn’t got the bandwidth to accurately control every muscle in your body, so you lose your technique. Choking is trying too hard; focussing too much. It happens. And when it happens, you really know about it.

You become sluggish and uncoordinated. It’s clear to everyone watching. Jana Novotna in the 1993 Wimbledon tennis final could hardly hit the ball. Greg Norman, throwing away his lead on the last day of the 1996 US Masters golf, hit some appalling shots – hips all out of sync with his arms, the ball plopping into the water 30 or 40 yards short of the green.

And then there’s what happened to Garuda recently, in the game-to-go to US Nationals. They lost a 3-point lead down the stretch. They dropped a game-winning catch:

You think they choked? Why do you think that? Catches get dropped. This is not an absolute sitter – you’d expect to make it most of the time, if conditions were fairly still, but it’s certainly not 100%. It’s unfortunate, but there’s no need for us to assign an explanation to it. Drops happen. You practice more, they happen less. But they still happen.

Take a look at that last PoNY pass before the video cuts out. It’s at least as obvious an autonomous-skill failure as anything Garuda did – the short, open-side flick to an open man, from a balanced handler with plenty of time, should be right up above 99%. This time, it’s rescued by the receiver. If that went down, perhaps we’d now be talking about Garuda’s incredible mental strength to pull through at the end… and how PoNY choked in possession in sudden-death.

Or what about this guy below – is he choking?

Your brain is obsessed with narrative and explanation, and can’t deal with randomness. But there’s no logical need to offer a different explanation for the two drops, just because one happened at a score of 3-4 in a Thursday pool match and one was at game point with a Nationals spot on the line.

If we were tossing a coin repeatedly, and ‘heads’ was winning 13-10 before losing 15-16, would we search around for explanations? Well, probably, because humans are terrible at accepting randomness and prefer any ‘causal’ explanation (including obviously superstitious ones). We don’t like things that ‘just happen’. But really, it’s a perfectly believable outcome.*

What if PoNY had gone on a three point run around half-time and then traded out the game? Would we be looking for explanations as to why Garuda choked for those three crucial points in the middle of the game?

I wonder what would happen if we got Charlie at Ultiworld to re-edit that Garuda game, and change the score in the top corner, so that the last few points happened in the middle of the game. Would an uninformed viewer be able to tell that there was something different about the way those points were played (other than maybe the level of celebration at the end)? If we accept the choking hypothesis, then we ought to be able to see a difference, and not just imagine an explanation that fits the actual outcome. Let’s just say I have my doubts.

Why am I saying all this? Because it has huge coaching implications. Choking, as discussed, is a problem created by trying too hard, by caring too much. Actively trying not to choke is impossible – what you must do instead is forget about choking, live in the moment, and let your subconscious perform all those autonomous skills you’ve been honing for years.

Sports psychologists focus on various tricks to instil confidence and to make you forget about the importance of what you’re doing – thinking about choking is quite literally the worst thing you can do.

So which is likely to be the better thing to tell your team?

‘Go away and get better, so that we’re so far ahead that we’ll still win even if we make more random mistakes than them.’

Or, ‘You blew it. Don’t blow it next time. Don’t choke the next time the pressure is on.’

Seems pretty clear to me.

*Of course that’s not realistic, as it doesn’t take into account which side starts the point with possession – but a computer simulation of 2 teams each having (for example) an 80% chance of scoring when starting on offence would also produce this kind of result a certain percentage of the time. Given also that there’s more than one game-to-go happening all across the country, it’s not that big a surprise to see this sort of ‘unlikely’ thing happen somewhere. It may be that they did choke, but the evidence certainly doesn’t require that explanation. I don’t see people unable to perform basic skills – I see a team who played at somewhere near the same level throughout and it just didn’t quite happen.
If there is anything different about the end of that game, I’d happily put it down to regression to the mean. Garuda played better than expected for most of the game (or maybe PoNY played worse – or both), and we shouldn’t be surprised that they didn’t stay at that level. It doesn’t show that anything went ‘wrong’. The expected team won – the surprise is that Garuda got so close, not that they lost out in the end. Regression to the mean covers it nicely.
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7 Responses to Choking? Are you sure?

  1. jedimax says:

    Thanks, I can clearly remember two choking situations from german nationals a few weeks ago. As I played never on such a high level, I was totally nervous and focused to much to do no mistakes. But this panic situation made me overthink what I am doing. Result: one drop and one bad dump pass, which I could have easily throw to a cutter …

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  2. ichabod says:

    I forget where I read it, but there is a mental trick that some NBA players use that psychologists say is very effective at removing the overthinking. Simply sing a song to yourself in your head (or even outloud if you have to), and that takes up your conscious brain space. This has had a huge impact on removing choking for last minute free throws in basketball. I don’t know how possible it is to apply to ultimate (a free throw allows you time to set up and not a stringent time limit, unlike ultimate), but it’s worth noting.

    In The Inner Game of Tennis, his advice is to live in the moment but in a positive way. Hyper aware of what’s going on, but not conscious of yourself. He says to really focus on the sound of the ball coming off the racket, and tracking the spin of the tennis ball occupies your mind enough to be present without being self conscious.

    But I do agree that endgame is overvalued in sports. Every point is equal. A drop on a game winning point is equal to one in the first half.

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  3. Brummie says:

    While it is perfectly true that a drop in the first point equals a drop in the final one (assuming both lead to losing the point… after all, dropping the disc in a point that you won has no bearing on the result), I think it is more about the chances of a team that has been scoring freely suddenly failing to score. Your analogy of coin tossing is all well and good, but the fact remains that getting 5 heads in a row *is* an unlikely situation.

    There are other factors in late game failure: being tired; a sudden change in tactics; defence getting better at “reading” their match-ups at an individual level… but the choke is real. I would love to hear your thoughts on GB v USA WUGC 2012 Open final!

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    • Oh, choking is definitely real. I just don’t see much evidence of it in this game, and I think people are far too quick in general to look for reasons for what are very possibly random events. As it happens, 5 consecutive heads would be expected to turn up after roughly 62 trials (only about 2 close games-worth of points). Of course, that’s not the same thing as 5-in-a-row happening specifically at the business end of the game, and it again fails to take into account that scoring is not 50-50 when one team starts on offence. But it does indicate that our natural expectation of random streaks is probably a little too low. With the number of Ultimate matches being played, I’m not surprised to see the occasional one throw up such streaks.

      I haven’t watched that GB-USA game for a long time; I do remember some surprising drops – at least, that very first one – and perhaps the effect of that first pass going down so unexpectedly did lead to some psychological issues that affected play after that. But I certainly couldn’t say for sure from this distance. I guess my wider point is that we should try and pretend we’re not choking, even when we might be, because treating the errors as random events and not the inevitable precursor to a whole game full of errors is probably a much better idea. If choking is unarguable, and repeated, then accept it and get a psychologist – otherwise I’d always prefer to assume it’s random.

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  4. Brady says:

    Great write up. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately (as we see ultimate move into live commentary, statistical analysis, etc.). The brain’s desire to fit events into a familiar explanation should not be underestimated. And this can have real consequences (as you indicate) – attributing outcomes to the incorrect reason can limit improvements in the future.

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