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Choking in Sports
One of my biggest issues with sportscasters, newspaper writers and columnists is their use of the word “choke.”
Too many times an analyst will say an athlete choked, when in fact they all they did was fail at the task at hand. Failing is not choking, and the two terms should not be intertwined. It really is amazing me to me how many times the word choke is used in the sports vernacular; and it is equally amazing how many times the announcer is wrong in choosing that particular word.
Additionally, the use of this word (choke), ad nauseam, is just as annoying as the so-called experts putting the athlete on a pedestal and calling them heroic or courageous when they perform in clutch situations. Give me a break!
The definition of the word choke, in the Webster’s dictionary, is this; to have trouble in breathing, swallowing, or speaking. When an athlete is struggling with one of these issues, then “choking” is clearly happening. But keep in mind, this rarely happens to an experienced athlete who has been in front of the microscope his/her entire career.
Only a few times, in recent memory, can I remember an athlete truly choking – where they perform much below their average ability, and subsequently don’t succeed. I will get to the “real” chokers in a minute, but first let’s talk about some of the better athletes and their chance to win majors in the past few years.
- Did Roger Federer choke when he lost the US Open final to Juan Martin Del Potro in 2009? Definitely not! Federer didn’t play up to his usual standards, but he never really found his form during the entire 2-week event. However, to label his loss as a “choke” is incorrect. Those that choose to use these words don’t understand sports and shouldn’t be talking or writing about them.
- Did Tiger Woods choke when he lost his first ever final round lead of a major championship in August ‘09 at the PGA championship? How is it possible that Tiger fired a final round 75, and his nearest rival – Y.E. Yang – beat him by 5 strokes en route to his first ever major? In order for this to happen, Tiger Woods must have choked! Right? No – Wrong! He had a bad day! Not one putt dropped in, but he most definitely did not choke, and to say such a thing is absolutely wrong!! Choking is standing over a 2-foot putt and missing the hole by 3 inches!
- If a golfer misses an 8-foot putt to win the tournament (like 59-year old Tom Watson did at Turnberry in the 2009 British Open), then he must have choked! The headlines in some major newspapers across the country the next day read “Watson Chokes Away Chance to Make History.” Is this for real? The guy played lights out golf all week and missed a tricky bending putt on the 72nd hole on a green with spike marks galore – yet the journalists who cover the sport are summarizing the final putt as a choke! The average professional golfer makes 8 footers 25 percent of the time. Did Watson choke on his quest to become the oldest golfer ever to win a major? The answer, without a doubt, is a resounding NO! He didn’t succeed, but he didn’t choke, and the two terms should never be mentioned in the same breath.
- When the Buffalo Bills blew an 18-point lead in the 4th quarter over the Cincinnati Bengals in the middle of the NFL season, many pundits labeled this as a major choke. How can 11 guys all choke at once? Choking – and it is rarer than you think – is much more apparent in individual sports. If a game comes down to the final play (Bills fans remember Scott Norwood missing a 40 yard field goal that would have won them the Super Bowl), then it can be classified a choke. But again –Norwood’s miss was exactly that – a miss, not a choke. Hitting a 40 yard field goal is not a guarantee and fans need to understand that if the probability of making that kick is only 75 percent, then you can’t call it a choke if it isn’t successful. Missing and choking are not synonyms and should never be mistaken for one another.
In my estimation, when an analyst describes a failure as a choke, they are only correct about 10 percent of the time.
Don’t get me wrong – athletes definitely do choke – but the frequency is much less than you think. Here are examples of some classic chokes over the years.
- Scott Hoch missed an 18 inch putt to win the Masters in 1989
- Jana Novotna at the 1993WimbledonFinal. Novotna led Steffi Graf 6-7, 6-1, 4-1 and 40-30 in the sixth game of the deciding set. But Novotna double faulted and arguably the greatest disintegration in aWimbledonfinal had begun.
- Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters. Normanshot a 78 and blew a 6-stroke lead to eventual champion Nick Faldo.
- Rory McIlroy at the 2011 Masters. McIlroy started the day at -12 and finished the day at -4, 10 shots out of the lead. McIlroy’s final round of 80 was one of the worst final round displays in golf history.
- Jean Van de Velde in the 1999 British Open
- Dan Janssen in the 1992 Olympics.
- Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series
- Curtis Strange in the 1995 Ryder Cup
- John McEnroe in the 1984 French Open
- Houston Oilers in the 1992 NFL playoffs – blowing a 35-7 lead midway through the third quarter.
Is choking the same as panicking? From my perspective and experience I can understand how the two terms could be misconstrued – but the two are on opposite sides of the stratosphere. In my opinion, these terms are black and white.
“Choking” sounds like a vague and all-encompassing term and is not understood by very many of the so-called experts, yet it describes a very specific kind of failure. You cannot perform anywhere near your normal standards when you are CHOKING! Under conditions of stress, the explicit system takes over, according to the author of BOUNCE, Matthew Syed. That’s what it means to choke. Panic, in this sense is the opposite of choking. Choking is about thinking too much – panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct – panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart.
I just hope the broadcasters and writers in the sports industry take as much time to research this key phrase as I just did. If not, it will continue to be overused and misrepresented in the world of sports, and this would be a real shame!
Written by Michael Emmett