I watched a home high school sectional basketball game years ago against a very athletic team from the Bay Area. The game came down to the final minute and one of their athletes was called for a hard foul to put one of our stars at the free throw line to shoot two free throws, down one point. The gym was as wild as I had seen it and the opposing coach called a timeout.
I don't know what passed through the kid's mind with the biggest game of his life on the line — just that, probably. In front of the packed and rocking crowd, he balked mid attempt and started over. He looked at the rim, propped the ball and stared for a split second. In a robotic style he shot with no follow through and the ball dropped to the floor without even reaching the rim, a rare free throw air ball. His second shot was almost as bad. He had choked.
Another time at a basketball game at the same location, I saw a very good player walk out on the court at the beginning of the game. He looked like a deer in headlights, his heart was probably pounding and it appeared he was breathing quickly. The ball was tipped to him, he grabbed it, looked around not knowing what to do and was called for traveling. The official stopped the game, got him to the bench where a paper bag was put over his mouth to breathe carbon dioxide back in. He had panicked.
Many people think of panic and choke as the same thing but, in a way, they are opposites. Panic means you have lost the ability to think, where choking, you think too much. Panic can happen anywhere, choking has to do with fans. In a classic piece on sport psychology authored by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker magazine, Gladwell chronicles many examples of choking in sports, including two of the biggest, Greg Norman and Jana Novotna.
To summarize, Novotna was on the verge of a Wimbledon title in 1993, just five good strokes away from beating Steffi Graf, the best player in the world. She was up 4-1 on the final set serving at 40-30. She tossed a serve in the air, not as high as usual, and whacked the ball into the net. Her next shot was just as bad, double fault. All the beautiful flow she'd had was gone; terrible net shots, frustration growing, overthinking everything, talking to herself, practicing her strokes slowly between points. She even sent a couple of returns into smithereens and hardly won another point.
The moment was too big and after all those years of practicing until she could play almost thoughtlessly, she started to think about how close to history she was. She lost in stunning fashion. Graf hugged her, aware of the enormity of her collapse. Everyone, including Novotna, knew she had choked, and it became a reality forever cemented in her mind that it could happen again. It did.
Greg Norman was up six strokes on the final day of the 1996 U.S. Open paired against Nick Faldo with nine holes to go. He was attacking the course and was in the flow. He reached his iron back and hit a shot short of the hole. It rolled back down the steep incline. Then he did it again. Something happened, an awareness. He started to think. Like Novotna he was practicing his swing between shots over and over like a beginner, slicing shots, pulling shots, shaking his hands. He lost by four strokes. The two golfers hugged and cried. Faldo knew he won because Norman had choked.
As a side, baseball players sometimes — but rarely — get a bizarre form of choking called "the yips," where a catcher can't throw the ball back to the pitcher or a second baseman can't make the throw to first. Instead, they throw it into the ground. But on a quick throw down to second, when there is no time to think, "Am I going to do it again?" the catcher might throw a perfect strike. The yips is a taboo subject in a baseball clubhouse, evidence that overthinking for even a split second can cause a choke.
To examine panic, pretend you have gone camping and at twilight you wander into the wilderness. For some reason, you get disoriented. It is a place you've never been. You wander farther, heart starting to beat faster, and you don't know what direction you are going. You are unable to think of a solution and now you are lost.
In sports, it is less common to panic than to choke but athletes can have a bout of panic where the heart beats too fast, breathing gets shallow and they hyperventilate. A swimmer can panic if the goggles slip and water gets inside, an equipment malfunction. The mind goes haywire and the inability to think sets in. The swimmer has not practiced this and his mind races blankly, he starts flailing in the water, he doesn't have a solution.
Gladwell in his writings says, "Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is a reversion to instinct. They may look the same but they are worlds apart".
Which brings us to Simone Biles. In case you may have missed this, the greatest gymnast in history decided to not compete in the all-around gymnastics' finals at last week's Olympic Games. She certainly didn't panic; she was way too practiced for that. Did she choke as some columnists have said?
She had a major gap of time before the finals to overthink. She probably did think a lot about the "twisties," a dangerous physical and mental phenomenon in which a gymnast's body gets confused moving through the air. She had been experiencing them lately while doing moves no one else has ever done.
Gymnastics coaches are known for pushing too hard, for not knowing how to calm their athletes. In an Olympics known for strangeness, there was a lot of pressure for the greatest gymnast ever to compete and perform for her advertisers and teammates and, especially, for her country with the racial and political divisions we are facing.
She was obviously thinking a lot and didn't feel safe in such a difficult precise sport with her mental and physical health at such odds. We don't know all the factors but the fact that she came back with courage and grace and medaled three days later was a tribute to her ability to overcome.
People who really follow sport think of Novotna and Norman first for their failure, for choking. This is also often true with Roberto Duran, who quit in the famous "No Mas" incident in the eighth round of a fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, or Chris Webber, who called a time out in the clutch when his team had none left, or when the ball went under Bill Buckner's legs in the World Series, or Phil Mickelson's collapse on the 18th hole. I think of their chokes before their triumphs.
Choking has to do with fans and the chemistry of the audience. Biles thought of many things five hours before competition and made her decision based on her health, not in the heat of the moment. She didn't panic and she didn't choke. Instead, she silenced the chaos and took the road that felt best.
Rod Kausen (he/him) is a retired teacher and coach.