The Causes of Choking
It was the first game of the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals. There were 18 seconds to go with the New York Knicks up by 6 against the Indiana Pacers. At this point, things were looking down for the Pacers. This was until the now acclaimed Knick Killer, Reggie Miller, went on to make two clutch three-point shots, thus tying the game. After multiple missed shots by Knicks players and a foul, the Pacers would eventually regain possession at the line. From there, the man of the hour, Reggie Miller, would strike the infamous choking gesture. Thus mocking the Knicks for giving up such a lead. He would go on to drain two free throw shots, winning the Pacers Game 1. With that outcome, the common question of “How can a team choke that bad?” quickly arises.
When searched, choking is referred to as the failure of a person, or persons to perform expectedly. In the case mentioned, the Knicks were considered to choke as they were expected to be victorious. However, the abrupt judgment from outsiders makes it easy to neglect the causes of choking within athletes, which include negative emotions, previous failures, and the outside feelings of others.
An experiment conducted, supports the huge contribution that negative emotions make in the process of choking. Within this study, researchers examined how basketball players’ fear of negative evaluation affects their performance. The study consisted of 138 experienced basketball players. To start the experiment, each participant completed a Brief Fear of Negative Evaluation-II (BFNE-II) questionnaire. From there, players took a total of 50 shots from 5 different spots under low and high-pressure conditions. The results of this study showed that those who experienced high Fear of Negative Evaluation (FNE) had increased anxiety and decreased performance in high-pressure conditions. Those who experienced low-FNE had little to no difference when it came to high-pressure conditions. Thus showing the role that negative emotions play in a player’s inadequate performance.
Furthermore, this same phenomenon is apparent in a context not involving sports. For example, there is always that one person who considers themselves a “bad test taker”. No matter how much they prepare, when it comes to the moment to answer the questions on the exam, they blank. More likely than not it is the fear of negative evaluation that stimulates one to underperform in a situation like that.
Research proves that previous failures can lead to meager performances during high-pressure situations. The study explored the effects that an individual’s past experiences have on their future performance in physical conflict. Through doing this multiple conclusions were reached. For starters, researchers concluded that the winning and losing of fights modulates aggression. Additionally, it was found that individuals naive to fighting tend to be highly aggressive. This until they experience two consecutive losses making them submissive, and a third loss making them want to refrain from the escalation of any conflict. On the other hand, a naive individual who wins any of their first three fights develops greater willpower to sustain defeat before becoming submissive.
These conclusive findings support the notion of the winner and loser effect, which essentially describes the increased probability of winning or losing due to the previous outcome. Take a player like Joakim Noah. At the line, down by 1 with 2 shots, thus shifting the game’s outcome in his hands. Being pinned as one of the worst free-throw shooters of all time, the constant failure at the line is typical. Therefore, with him taking those two shots and missing them, the loser effect is depicted. This is because his previous failures in free throw shooting played a role in the result of the most recent one. Thus, validating the fact that preceding events partake in choking during intense situations.
Evidence supports the fact that the crowd can lead to decreased athletic performance. In addition, a study was done involving a European Football team. Furthermore, it examined the crowd over 4 consecutive seasons, more specifically the crowd’s support and density. Upon completion, it was concluded that the presence of a big and backing crowd is of great importance for home-field advantage. Although this data is in support of the crowd enhancing one’s performance, it is still conclusive, as the same could apply to a crowd that is small and unsupportive. For example, in an intense game, the crowd may be booing and chanting nasty remarks to diminish the performance of a rival player. Thus, potentially allowing the rival player to slip up and make a mistake.
Choking in an intense situation is something that is not only prominent in sports, but overall daily life. It is usually attributable to unenthusiastic feelings, past instances, and external viewpoints. For example, on my driver’s test, I was considered a “choke” as I forgot to shift the car into park after parallel parking. This was due to my crippling fear of failure, which ultimately distracted me from an important detail that I had performed many times prior. Since I knew the cause of this silly and careless mistake, I was able to combat it and perform well enough to get my license the next time. This is why it is vital we examine things like choking in all aspects of life and develop strategies to combat it, thus allowing for a smoother and more enjoyable life.
Mesagno, C., Harvey, J. T., & Janelle, C. M. (2012). Choking under pressure: The role of fear of negative evaluation. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13(1), 60-68. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2011.07.007
Fawcett, T. W., & Johnstone, R. A. (2010). Learning your own strength: winner and loser effects should change with age and experience. Proceedings. Biological sciences, 277(1686), 1427–1434. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2009.2088
In the abstract, I think everyone can agree that some sort of “mindfulness” could give some players an advantage at the free throw line, Spy.
But, for every reader, that advantage might look like:
“control over one’s thoughts” or
“the ability to focus” or
“the elimination of distractions” or
“the emptying of one’s mind” or
“becoming the ball” or
“trusting in muscle memory”
or perhaps a dozen other phrases, all so abstract that they don’t give us confidence that we actually understand the mechanics of shooting better.
When you say “why mindfulness can improve free throw shooting,” I can answer with any one of the phrases above, but I’m left with the CRUCIAL question of HOW, not WHY mindfulness improves shooting.
Some of those phrases suggest very specific thoughts; some suggest limiting the scope of thoughts; others suggest total elimination of thoughts; one suggests engaging in a fantasy that we are the ball; one ignores thoughts altogether and pretends our muscles will move without the mind.
We have too many theories and not enough facts. What’s the PROCESS of achieving mindfulness? Is it a full or partial emptying of the mind? Wouldn’t that be mind-LESS-ness? If it’s a filling of the mind with REPLACEMENT thoughts to tamp down the distractions, can you describe that process and what thoughts replace the unwanted ones?
The more concretely you can SHOW us HOW the process works, the better.
I did not think of it like that. Thanks for shifting my focus from why to how.