Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Psychology of Choking

Part 5 of our continuing series: An Australian on Ice Hockey.

When the Chicago Blackhawks scored with little over a minute remaining to tie their Game 7 first-round playoff match with the Vancouver Canucks last night, I got really excited. Not because I particularly like Chicago or dislike the Canucks, but because an upset was in the offing and the Canucks were going to choke against the Hawks again! I wanted to see Chicago come back from 3-0 down in the series to win; comebacks of those proportions happen once in a generation, if that often. That Alexandre Burrows shot the Canucks into the second round after only a few minutes of overtime came as a bit of a let down, but it prompted a left-brain/right-brain discussion for me.

The question must be asked whether it was again the much-feted Vancouver choke or just oustanding play by the Blackhawks that allowed their comeback. At this stage, no-one in the West of Canada cares much about anything else (it was stories 1,2 3 and 6 on the Vancouver news last night) as the Sedins-led squad has finally beaten their playoff nemesis, but is it fair simply to lay the blame on the Canucks being overwhelmed by the situation? Against an eighth-seeded Chicago, shorn of many of their Stanley Cup winning squad from a year ago?

The answer is that choking just isn't as simple as all that - it's a multifactorial occurrence, as for a favourite to lose to an underdog requires many different ducks to be in the right row. While it's easy to see one individual player become lost in the moment, for an entire team to choke depends on all the members of that squad - or a certain subsection, for example, the forwards - almost simultaneously losing their own collective consciousness.

Choking as a team isn't a favourite being outplayed. A team can be said to choke when they look at their lesser opponents (and there can't be any debate on who has the better team), and think "Hang on, we should be beating these guys", provoking a negative, rather than positive performance. Often a choke looks like a player/club trying not to make mistakes, rather than going out to win a match/series. Choking isn't just a one-seed being beaten by an eight-seed - it's when the favourite looks at their opposition and collectively soils themselves at the very concept of losing, by virtue of their opposition, the big picture or that they're already perceived as chokers.

Otherwise, San Antonio's probable series loss to Memphis in this year's NBA playoffs would be called just that, and it's not. In truth, Memphis have outplayed the Spurs after tanking their last couple of games during the regular season to make sure they met in the postseason. The simple fact is with a lineup featuring Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Antonio McDyess all playing big minutes, the club has the stones to come through in the clutch as all have proved themselves in the NBA Finals time and again. The Spurs are failing because they're being outplayed by a younger, hungrier and healthier team.

The suggestion - and I can't prove it - is that a team choking is much, much harder to do than is regularly attributed. The reason so many clubs are said to be chokers *cough* Vancouver, South Africa, New Zealand *cough* is because popular perception is that each of these clubs should be so good as to be untouchable in the playoffs. This is a flawed notion, because it completely disregards in most cases (cricket is perhaps the exception), the simple fact that it is the playoffs changes the game, perhaps to the benefit of a club (cf. the current Boston Celtics) and occasionally to the detriment (cf. the Canucks). Team choking - while it still does happen - depends on so many people "losing it" in synchrony, that it's become much more an issue of public perception than of a team's performance. Teams are said to be chokers because they bear the weight of public expectation.

The great, all-time chokes tend to come from solo sports: Greg Norman was famous for it, as was Slovak tennis player Miloslav Mecir, who was so overwhelmed by the moment on one occasion that he served underarm. In Rugby Union, any time the All Blacks fail to win the World Cup, it is deemed a choke. The same applies to South Africa and India during the cricket World Cup - although South Africa almost certainly performed the Team Choke when losing to Australia in the 1999 World Cup. These are unfair generalisations and dont't take into account the context in which each game - or tournament - was played.

While the Canucks mercifully move on to face Nashville, they may have shaken their "chokers" tag - at least for now. But hopefully, one of the overused terms in sports journalism is now starting to be applied more contextually.

The author of this post would like to put on the record that he is not a psychologist, and has only the most basic training in psychology, but thought the title was quite snappy, so stuck with it.

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