What does it mean 'to choke'?
Obviously, we all know the physiological choke....blocking one's airway, eliminating from the lungs the capability of drawing breath. But what does it mean for a player or team to 'choke'? There are probably as many definitions of what choke is as there are readers on these boards.
I've long understood this sports phenomenon. Crap, I've mastered it as an athlete. As a coach, I was able to keep players to keep from doing it. I feel qualified to delve into this topic, both from a diagnosis standpoint, and from a prevention standpoint.
Definition....what is choke? Quite simply, choke is the act of performing at a less than optimum level, often causing your team to underachieve, either in a game, or season.
More importantly, what is the root cause of choking. This one is simple. A player or coach chokes when the focus moves from the task at hand to the circumstances surrounding the moment. What does that mean, exactly?
Most chokes happen at the end of the game. Free throws missed. Pitchers losing the strike zone. Hitters who don't produce late in game. Kickers missing when the money is on. QBs who shrivel under the pressure of late game situations. Golfers who miss short putts, or drive the ball in the woods when they seemingly have the tournament in hand. Why does this happen?
From the beginnings of our time in sports, we want to be the hero. Watch a kid shooting hoops. At some point, he will throw up a shot while counting the clock down....4.....3....2....1.....(buzzer sound), as the ball goes through the hoop or bounces off the rim. Hitters stand at the plate.....9th inning, 3-2 count, bases loaded, down by one run.....you get the point.
Nothing is more counterproductive than these excercizes, What is different about the end of the game than any other time of the game? The answer is nothing. The goal is the same. I'll use baseball as the example. The principles can be applied across all sports.
The job of the baseball player is the same all year, all game. Hit the ball, catch the ball, throw the ball, and run where you need to run. The job does not change despite the time or pressure of the game. The task at hand for a hitter remains the same the entire game. What happens much of the time, added importance is placed on an at bat in the later innings than early in the ball game. If you examine it as it truly relates to the game, an at bat in the first inning is no less important than an at bat in the 9th. Each has an opportunity to do something positive. The job of the player is to execute the at bat to fit the best interest of the team in general, and to fullfil the wishes of the manager specifically.
Now, you might ask, how does one do that? Simple really. You practice it. You practice batting in the last inning down a run, two runs, score tied, etc. Instead of practicing how to be the hero, you practice making no change to your approach to hitting. The only change you might make is taking a pitch when you otherwise wouldn't. Again, that is a coaches decision. Other than that, you don't change the approach. Your job in the first inning is to make good contact. It is the same in the last inning. You talk to the players about creating that mindset. Then, late in the ball game, you ask the player before he/she goes to the on deck circle what their job is. If you've coached properly, they tell you to watch the ball and make good contact.
I used to use the simulation of 'punishment' for poor performance in practice. If a player hit the next good pitch, no punishment for the team. If they didn't, the entire team had to run. Once the player didn't hit, and the running was done, we sat down and talked. We talked about how the player at bat felt. Usually they felt the weight of letting the team down if he didn't get a hit. The other players on the team were tense because they knew that their fate was not in their own hands. Sometimes, when their teammate failed, they would yell at him while running. This adds to the pressure. Now we have a teachable moment.
The kid who was at bat needs to understand that his focus needed to remain calm and focused on the job at hand.....making good contact. The other team members had to learn to relax and encourage their teammate. Undoubtedly, they would be in the same position at some point. Once you change the climate during these 'pressure' situations from nervousness about the consequences to buisness as normal, then the players are able to function at peak efficiency.
As soon as the player allows the mindset that 'I must get a hit or we will lose', or " I must get a hit to win the game', the focus goes off of the task to the circumstances. Once you allow the circumstances to filter into the equation, there is no way you can totally focus on the task.
Done properly, you see players not change their routines late in game. This applies to hitting, fielding, pitching, shooting free throws in basketball, putting on a golf course or kicking a field goal in football. You must develop a physical and mental routine to do each of these jobs. People who are able to do this are labled winners. Those who don't are labled chokers.
It takes a lot of work to master this. There are relaxation drills that help, but most is mental. You can control you mind and thus, your physiology. Slower, even breathing and reduced heart rate. This all allows us to perform at a higher level.
Now, If I could only get in with Lou Pinella and teach the Cubs this stuff........