The Record – Sep 22, 2007 – Jason Anderson – We glorify athletes, hail them as heroes and save them a seat on “The Tonight Show” when they come through in the clutch.
But heaven help them when they choke.
Because when the moment grows bigger than the man – when Jean Van de Velde squanders a three-stroke lead on the final hole at the British Open, when a ground ball goes between Bill Buckner’s legs, when a player fails with a championship in the balance – brilliant legacies become punch lines.
1. New York Yankees, 2004, ALCS. The Yankees led three games to none with a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 when they collapsed in the 2004 American League Championship Series. The Boston Red Sox allied to win Game 4 and became the first team in baseball history to win a seven-game series after losing the first three games.
2. Houston Oilers, 1992 AFC playoffs. The Oilers led 35-3 in the third quarter before the Buffalo Bills staged the largest comeback in NFL history, rallying to win 41-38 in overtime. The next day, the Oilers fired defensive coordinator Jim Eddy and defensive backs coach Pat Thomas, each of whom had been a part of coach Jack Pardee’s staffs with the Houston Gamblers of the United States Football League and at University of Houston.
3. Bill Buckner, Boston Red Sox, 1986 World Series. He hit .289 with 2,715 hits in a 22-year major league career, but Buckner is remembered for the costly error he committed at first base in Game 6 against the New York Mets. A ground ball rolled between Buckner’s legs in the bottom of the 10th inning, allowing the winning run to score from second base. The Mets won the seventh game two nights later.
4. Jean Van de Velde, 1999 British Open. Van de Velde needed only a double-bogey on the final hole at Carnoustie to become the first Frenchman since 1907 to win the Open Championship. After birdies on the 18th hole in the first two rounds, Van de Velde took a triple-bogey 7, putting him in a three-way playoff he would lose to Paul Lawrie.
5. Chicago Cubs, 2003, NLCS. Mark Prior was throwing a three-hitter against the Florida Marlins, and the Cubs were five outs away from their first World Series since 1945. Chicago, which hasn’t won a World Series since 1908, led the series three games to two with a 3-0 lead in the eighth inning of Game 6 at Wrigley Field when Cubs fans Steve Bartman interfered with Moises Alou’s attempt to catch a foul ball down the left-field line. Alou couldn’t make the catch, and by the time the inning ended, the Marlins had scored eight runs, winning the game and, later, the series.
6. Dan O’Brien, 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials. Amid the hype of Reebok’s memorable “Dan and Dave” commercials, featuring O’Brien and fellow decathlete Dave Johnson, O’Brien failed to qualify for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. He passed on the opening heights in the pole vault at the U.S. Olympic Trials and failed on his first three attempts, leaving him with no points in the event and no place on the Olympic team.
7. Greg Norman, 1996 Masters. “The Shark,” the world’s top-ranked golfer for 331 weeks in the 1980s and 1990s, blew a six-stroke lead in the final round, posting an unsightly 78 that allowed Nick Faldo to win by five strokes.
8. Andres Escobar, 1994 World Cup. The Colombian soccer player scored an own goal against the United States, eliminating his team from the World Cup. Ten days later in his homeland, Escobar was shot and killed.
T9. New York Giants, 2002 NFC playoffs. The Giants blew a 24-point second-half lead, eventually falling 39-38 to the San Francisco 49ers in an NFC wild-card game.
T9. Chris Webber, Michigan Wolverines, 1993 NCAA Championship. With his team trailing 73-71 and 11 seconds remaining, Webber called a timeout when double-teamed by North Carolina. The Wolverines had no timeouts remaining, and the resultant technical foul gave the Tar Heels two free throws and, ultimately, a 77-71 victory.
“Choke,” Pacific baseball coach Ed Sprague said. “It’s just one of those words, in sports and in life, you don’t want to hear.”
Sprague is among the fortunate ones who produced when it mattered most. He hit a walk-off home run in the ninth inning to lift the Toronto Blue Jays over the Atlanta Braves in Game 2 of the 1992 World Series. Some have a tendency to shine in the spotlight. For them, the walk of life is lined with adulation, but just as many fail profoundly because of a mental phenomenon so widely recognized it warrants explanation in the dictionary.
Choking is defined as failing to perform adequately due to tension or agitation. It occurs in all areas of life, but in sports, money and media exposure have pushed risks and rewards to historic highs. Knowing this only heightens intense biological, psychological and physiological forces athletes feel in critical situations, said Dr. John Murray, a Palm Beach, Fla.-based sports psychologist.
“You almost have to play as if it doesn’t matter, but, goodness gracious, it matters,” Murray said.
It matters the same way an approaching lion matters to a zebra in the wild. Murray, author of “Smart Tennis: How to Play and Win the Mental Game,” said the stress response in athletes under extraordinary pressure mirrors the fight-or-flight response seen in nature. The massive adrenaline rush may enable a man to fight off a mob or a woman to lift a wrecked car off a trapped baby, but it hinders the fine motor skills needed in sports.
“There could be select instances in sports like football or wrestling where a big burst of adrenaline might help you pin the guy to the mat or block a guy to get the winning touchdown run, but that is extremely counter to what’s necessary in most sports,” Murray said.
Muscles tighten. Palms become sweaty. Breathing becomes heavier. Blood rushes to the center of the body. The heart begins to race. Thoughts become quicker and more confused.
“A number of things typically transpire when an athlete or team is in a situation they perceive as important – more important, perhaps, than another situation,” said Murray, who has counseled NFL quarterbacks, pro tennis players and golfers. “For some reason, they place higher importance on a particular play, a particular point or a particular shot, and they inadvertently sabotage themselves.”
It may be the dirtiest word in sports, but it happens to the best of them.
Michelle Kwan, widely regarded as one of the best figure skaters of all time, won nine U.S. championships and five world championships, but she never won an Olympic gold medal due in large part to flawed performances.
Golfer Greg Norman entered the final round of the 1996 Masters with a six-stroke lead. He shot a 6-over-par 78 and lost to Nick Faldo by five strokes.
The New York Yankees led three games to none with a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 when they collapsed in the 2004 American League Championship Series. The Boston Red Sox rallied to win Game 4 and became the first team in baseball history to win a seven-game series after losing the first three games.
Then, there’s Buckner. He hit .289 with 2,715 hits in a 22-year major league career, but is remembered for a costly error that allowed the New York Mets to score the winning run against the Red Sox in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.
According to a 2006 “Outside the Lines” report on ESPN, Buckner foreshadowed that fateful moment 19 days earlier in an interview with a Boston television station.
“The dreams are that you are going to have a great series and win, and the nightmares are that you are going to let the winning run score on a ground ball through your legs,” Buckner said. “Those things happen, and I think a lot of it is just fate.”
Fred Mills, a sports psychology consultant at Pacific, believes it has more to do with focus. Mills believes in the power of concentration and positive thinking, lessons he conveys when counseling Pacific’s baseball, men’s basketball and women’s soccer teams.
“I’m a great believer that consistently high performers lock on to what they want,” Mills said. “Others have a tendency to lock on to what they don’t want. When you’re focused on what you want to happen and have this level of confidence, you’re more likely to be calm and in control.”
Mills aided junior forward Anthony Brown in overcoming his free-throw shooting struggles. Brown said he was a good free-throw shooter in high school and prep school, but self doubt set in when he shot 53.8 percent as a freshman at Pacific. Coaches helped him improve his form while Mills improved his mind-set, and as a sophomore Brown shot 70.1 percent.
“Fred talks about playing from the subconscious,” Brown said. “He’ll ask you what’s the best game you ever had, and he’ll ask what you were thinking about. When you’re playing free you aren’t thinking about anything, but I had a lot of things in my head my freshman year.”
Mills preaches the importance of “being in the moment” when tensions rise.
“Being in the moment means being in the present, because almost all of your distractions in a competitive environment are when you’re in the past or in the future,” Mills said.
One player might flash forward to the roar of the crowd, the postgame champagne or the glory of hitting a winning shot. Another might flash back to a missed putt or a failed fourth-quarter drive.
Pacific basketball coach Bob Thomason said he believes there is hope for chokers everywhere, citing examples of athletes who conquered their frailties to become better clutch performers.
“Just because somebody doesn’t handle it well early in their career doesn’t mean they can’t handle it later,” Thomason said. “(Professional golfer Phil) Mickelson was like that. Then he won a major, and all of a sudden he’s won a couple more.”
Lorena Ochoa’s tendency to cough up golf tournaments led to the nickname “Lorena O-choke-a,” but she surpassed Annika Sorenstam as the world’s No. 1-ranked women’s player in April and has won three consecutive LPGA Tour events, including her first major, the British Open in August.
Murray said he can help athletes reduce performance anxiety by conditioning their minds to take the importance out of the situation. Recovery is possible, but many deny they have a problem.
In his book, “I Call the Shots: Straight Talk About the Game of Golf Today,” former golfer and current NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller said PGA Tour pros take offense when he points out that they choked.
“Why be in denial about it?” Miller wrote. “The way some tour players react to the suggestion they choked, you’d think they’d run out of a burning building and left their family behind. My thinking is, there is a lot to be learned by studying choking.”
Lessons to be learned; glory to be gained.
The word “choke” oftens falls on those who stand alone in the spotlight and fail to come through with everything on the line.
“Upset” describes teams that lose unexpectedly.
There is a difference between the two words. The Houston Oilers
collectively gagged in the 1992 AFC playoffs, while Appalachian State upset Michigan in football earlier this month. Several teams made our list of top-10 all-time examples of choking in sports (PAGE C10), but more often than not, the individual gets saddled with the label.
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.