Choke (sports)

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Jump to: navigation, search sports, a "choke" is the failure of an athlete or an athletic team to win a game or tournament when the player or team had been strongly favored to win or had squandered a large lead in the late stages of the event. Someone who chokes may be known as a "choker" or, more derisively, as a "choke artist". Choking in sport can be considered a form of analysis paralysis.


Choking under pressure decreases the standard level of athletic performance, of an athlete when they may be at their peak performance.[1] Symptoms of choking may include, tightening up of the muscles, an increase level of anxiety and a decrease in self-confidence. Choking can leave an athlete feeling embarrassed or frustrated.


Choking is caused when an athlete becomes distracted, their thoughts become negative or unproductive and when they worry about things they cannot control. Anxiety is built up from negative self-talk and doubt which leads to choking.[2]

Explicit monitoring theory

The explicit monitoring theory provides an explanation for athlete’s under-performance at the precise moment they need to be at their best. Sian Beilock and Tom Carr suggest that “pressure raises self-consciousness and anxiety about performing correctly, which increases the attention paid to skill processes and their step-by-step control. Attention to execution at this step-by-step level is thought to disrupt well-learned or proceduralized performances.”[3]

Distraction theory

Distraction theory was first suggested by Wine [4] to explain under-performance in performance pressure situations. Distraction theorists argue that pressure creates a dual task situation which draws attention away from the task at hand. Attention is then focused towards irrelevant stimuli such as worries, social expectations, and anxiety [5] Wine first tested his hypothesis with academic tests but it has since been applied to athletics.

Research has found that distraction theory is supported in situations where working memory is used to analyze and make decisions quickly.[6] Short term memory is used to maintain relevant stimuli and block irrelevant information as it relates to the task at hand.[7]

Self-focus theory

Predicts, a decrease in performance is due to attention being shifted to movement execution. Any combination of factors that increase the importance of performing is considered performance pressure. Baumeister’s self-focus theory suggests responding to performance pressure can lead to an increase in self-consciousness which then results in choking.[8] There is more focus on the motor components of performance, consciously controlling movements with step-by-step control.[9]

Processing efficiency theory (PET)

Anxiety causes a shift in an athlete’s attention towards thought of performance consequences and failure.[10] An increase in worry decreases attention resources. According to PET, athletes put extra effort into their performance when under pressure, to eliminate negative performance. Eysenck and Calvo found processing efficiency is effected by negative anxiety more than performance effectiveness. Efficiency being the relationship between the quality of task performance and the effort spent in task performance.[11]

Attentional control theory (ACT)

Eysenck and Calvo developed ACT an extension to PET, hypothesizing an individual shifts attention to irrelevant stimuli. Stress and pressure cause an increase in the stimulus-driven system and a decrease in the goal-directed system. Disruption of balance between these two systems causes the individual to respond to salient stimuli rather than focusing on current goals.[12] ACT identifies the basic central executive functions inhibition and shifting, which are affected by anxiety. Inhibition is the ability to minimize distractions caused from irrelevant stimuli.[13] Shifting requires adapting to changes in attentional control. Shifting back and forth between mental sets due to task demands.[14]

Attentional threshold model

According to the attentional threshold model, a performance decrement is caused by exceeded threshold of attentional capacity. This model combines both the self-focus models and the distraction models. The combination of worry and self-focus together causes a decrease in performance. Attentional Threshold Model suggests that choking is a complex process involving cognitive, emotional and attentional factors.[15]

Contributing factors

Factors of choking may include, individual responsibility, expectations, poor preparation, self-confidence, physical/mental errors, important games/moments and opponent’s actions.

Fear of negative evaluation

FNE is a psychological characteristic that increases anxiety under high pressure. Creates apprehension about others evaluations or expectations of oneself.[16] FNE is similar to motive to avoid failure (MaF). The need to avoid negative evaluation from others, avoid mistakes and avoid negative comparison to other players.[17]

Presence of an audience

The presence of parents, coaches, media or scouts can increase pressure leading to choking. An athlete wants to perform their best while being observed and trying not to make any mistakes increases the amount of pressure they are under.[18]


Being over-confident can cause negativity to take over quickly. Not expecting something negative to happen can cause a choke. Having low self-confidence leads to more mistakes, because you do not think you can do anything.[19]

A study done by Wang, Marchant, Morris and Gibbs (2004) found poor performance associated with high self-conscious individuals. An individual with high self-consciousness focuses their attention to thoughts relating to the task (i.e., “did I step right?”) and to outside concerns (i.e., “will people laugh if I mess up?”). Individuals with low self-consciousness can direct their attention outward or inward because self-concerns do not dominate their thinking.[20]

Choking and individual zone of optimal functioning

According to IZOF[clarification needed], introduced by Yuri L. Hanin[who?] as an instance of the earlier-discovered Yerkes–Dodson effect, an individual’s best performance is when their anxiety level is in a certain zone of optimal state of anxiety or affect. Too much or too little anxiety can lead to performance decrement. Determining athletes’ optimal prestart state anxiety level leads to achieving and maintaining that level throughout the performance.[21]

Choking can occur if the athlete is outside their anxiety zone. Programs such as IZOF help identify an athletes anxiety zone creating a balance between arousal and somatic anxiety. Low arousal can lead to broad attention taking in irrelevant and relevant cues. High arousal can create low attention causing important cues being missed.[22]

For example a lacrosse goalie with low arousal may focus more on whether or not a college scout is watching them, rather than focusing on the opponent who is about to score on them. A lacrosse goalie with high arousal may focus more on the opponents stick position instead of the opponents body position, causing them to step in the wrong direction.

Examples of choking in sports

Ice hockey

Four NHL teams have taken a 3–0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, only to lose 4–3 in the best-of-seven series: the 1942 Detroit Red Wings, 1975 Pittsburgh Penguins, 2010 Boston Bruins, and 2014 San Jose Sharks.[citation needed]

On February 20, 2014, at the Winter Olympic games in Sochi, Russia, in the Women's Gold medal game between Team USA and Team Canada, the US was up 2–0 in the third period with only 3:30 minutes left in the game. The Canadian team rallied and scored, bringing the game to 2–1. The US had an opportunity to score into the empty net but hit the goal post instead. Then Canada tied the score in the third period with 55 seconds left and won the game in sudden death overtime.[23]


The South African national Cricket team has gained a reputation as a frequent choker at global cricket tournaments conducted by the International Cricket Council. Despite being consistently one of the best-performing nations in all forms of cricket since its return from isolation, the Proteas have never progressed beyond the semi-final stage at a World Cup. This reputation was further cemented by the fact that South Africa had never won a game during the knock-out stage of the World Cup; a record which was broken in the quarter-finals of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015, when they won against Sri Lanka.[24][25][not in citation given]

This reputation arises largely from two events:

  • In the 1999 Super Six Stage, Herschelle Gibbs dropped eventual centurion Steve Waugh after which Australia went on to win the match,[26] then a shambolic run-out involving Allan Donald and Lance Klusener in the semi-final also against Australia ended South Africa's second innings with the scores tied. Australia progressed on the basis of its superior run rate through the tournament.
  • In the Proteas' final game of Cricket World Cup 2003's group stage (which was effectively a knock-out match, as they had to win to progress to the super six), South Africa tied the rain-affected game against Sri Lanka which they could have won, after they misinterpreted the Duckworth-Lewis rain rule tables shortly before the match was called off.

In addition to surrendering commanding positions in the above matches, South Africa suffered upset losses against the West Indies in 1996 and New Zealand in 2011.[27] South Africa's win in the 1998 ICC KnockOut Trophy remains their only international tournament victory to date.

The English national Cricket team, despite being consistently among the top half dozen ranked teams in international cricket, have only won one global tournament so far, the 2010 ICC World Twenty20, and are noted for having thrown away winning positions in several high-profile games, including:

  • In the 2004 ICC Champions Trophy final, England had put themselves into a dominant position by reducing the West Indies to 147/8 chasing a target of 218, but failed to prevent tail-enders Courtney Browne and Ian Bradshaw from putting together an unlikely partnership of 71 to win.
  • In the 2013 Champions Trophy final against India, England batted second and got into a position of needing just 20 runs off the last 16 balls, with six wickets in hand, but lost four wickets in the space of eight balls and lost the match by five runs.[28]

The Royal Challengers Bangalore, a team of the Indian Premier League franchise have also earned the tag of being chokers

American football

Use of the term "choke" in this context is most frequently encountered in the United States, and appears to be of relatively recent origin, not becoming reasonably widespread until well into the 1960s.[citation needed]

In a Wild Card playoff matchup between the Buffalo Bills and the Houston Oilers On January 3, 1993, the Oilers blew a 32-point lead to lose in overtime, the largest in a playoff game in NFL history. This game is known to this day as The Comeback, or locally in Houston as The Choke.[29]


Prior to 2014, the University of Mississippi (aka "Ole Miss Rebels") baseball team had gone 0–6 in NCAA Super Regional games, at home, after winning the first game in their three most-recent best-of-three series.[30] For example, during the 2012 NCAA baseball regionals, the Rebels were 2–0 and one win from advancing to the Super Regionals, but lost two straight games to TCU and failed to advance. In reference to the University of Mississippi baseball team's then 41-year absence from the College World Series, rival fanbases [31] coined OMAHA as an acronym for "Ole Miss At Home Again". However, after defeating The University of Louisiana at Lafayette in the 2014 Super Regional, Ole Miss finally advanced to the College World Series for the first time in 42 years, winning two games and advancing to the semi-finals.[32]


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