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.