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What is Choking in Sports?

If you watched Super Bowl 51, you were probably as astounded as everyone else when the Atlanta Falcons managed to throw away a 28-3 lead over the New England Patriots.  At one point, ESPN’s win probability machine gave the Falcons a 99.6% chance of defeating the Patriots.  That didn’t happen, however; the game went into overtime (the first in Super Bowl history), and the Patriots won, making most online bookmakers rubbing their hands.


Since then, you have probably been hearing a lot of talk about “choking.”  What is choking in sports, and does the term apply to what happened to the Falcons?


While the term “choke” is notoriously overused in sports, this is actually a case where it is relevant.  If we say that an athlete or a team “choked” in a game, it was one where that athlete or team was heavily favoured or had a significant lead, and then managed against all odds to blow it.


That is exactly what happened with the Falcons.  They were not actually the favourite at all going into the Super Bowl, but they did have a massive lead before it all fell apart.  


Sometimes a team or player which chokes is referred to as a “choker” or a “choke artist”—the latter of course reflecting the audience’s frustration with such behaviour. What typifies choking is that it happens when an athlete is at a level of peak performance.  An athlete or team cannot choke when it is doing badly.  The Falcons were performing magnificently before they choked, and then their level of performance abruptly dropped as a result.  Choking of course cost them the game.


Why Do Teams and Athletes Choke?

Choking seems to be a form of performance anxiety, tied to distraction and negativity during high pressure matches and games.  There are a couple different theories as to what happens:


  • When players know they need to be performing at their best, they suddenly start to doubt their capabilities.  They begin over-thinking the situation instead of simply doing what they do well.  As a result, their self-consciousness gets in the way and they attempt to micro-manage their performance.  But in reality, sports performance typically leans on muscle memory and proceduralised techniques.  Once these procedures are disrupted through too much self-conscious attention, they stop working as intended.  This is especially true when the motor components of athletic technique become the primary focus.
  • Distraction probably plays a role in choking as well.  In situations where teams are under pressure, they are distracted from the task they should be performing and end up paying attention to pointless things, like what people will think of them if they lose.  Attentional resources are drained as a result. 


Many different risk factors can contribute to choking:

  • Individual players may choke under pressure if an enormous amount of personal responsibility for a game is resting on their shoulders.
  • A team may choke if they are in a situation where a win has great importance for the team itself, the community, a specific player, or so on.
  • High expectations can lead to choking.
  • Players who suffer from problems with self-confidence may choke because of their low self-esteem.  This can actually apply to a team as a whole as well, since teams tend to develop personalities.
  • If a player or team makes an unexpected mistake, this can lead to self-doubt and over-analytical behaviour.  This in turn may cause a sudden performance decline.
  • Any high profile game might lead a team to choke (i.e. the Super Bowl or World Cup).
  • Media pressure may play a role in choking.  If a team is overly fearful of a negative evaluation, players may choke in their desperation to avoid one.
  • The nature of the audience may increase pressure.  Playing either before a hostile audience or a dedicated home audience can both lead to choking (both negative and positive forces can cause performance anxiety).  So can the presence of key individuals (i.e. scouts).
  • Overconfidence may indirectly lead to choking, as can a lack of experience with losing.  If a team that usually breezes through games suddenly encounters difficulties, they may psychologically collapse because they do not know what to do or how to handle it.
  • Inexperience in general.  Teams that are not used to playing big games which suddenly find themselves in the spotlight are always going to be more tense than usual. 


Curiously enough, there seems to be a certain optimal level of anxiety which prevents performance anxiety from kicking into overdrive. 


A player who is overly anxious will of course have a tendency to choke.  But a player who is overly relaxed may be pushed abruptly over the edge by a single unexpected event.  Players who are too relaxed also have a tendency to be more easily distracted.  But a player who is within a certain optimised anxiety zone may have an easier time focusing on the task at hand and also coping with the unexpected.


The Atlanta Falcons’ loss against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 51 is already going down in history as one of the biggest chokes ever.  But the situation was hardly unique.  Choking is something you will encounter time and again when you are betting on sports.  So look for choking risk factors when you are handicapping players and teams.  This may help you to predict when a choke is likely to occur!


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