Sport is renowned for moments of choking. Most prominently the ‘missed shot’ – foul shot, penalty shot – where all action is stopped and a game winning event is lined up in the spotlight. But all sorts of choking prevails from scoring to defending. One of the most prominent chokes burned into the memories of anyone growing up in Boston is the infamous Bill Buckner World Series error (above)

Malcolm Gladwell’s essay ‘What the Dog Saw” does a great job of dissecting just what this ‘choke’ phenomenon is all about and how it differs from its failure sibling, panic…

  • To choke or panic is considered to be as bad as to quit. But are all forms of failure equal? And what do the forms in which we fail say about who we are and how we think? We live in an age obsessed with success, with documenting the myriad ways by which talented people overcome challenges and obstacles. There is as much to be learned, though, from documenting the myriad ways in which talented people sometimes fail…Panic, in this sense, is the opposite of choking…
    • Too Much vs. Too Little Thinking – Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart.”
    • Paradoxical vs. Conventional – What happened to [John F. Kennedy Jr.] that night illustrates a second major difference between panicking and choking. Panicking is conventional failure, of the sort we tacitly understand…But choking makes little intuitive sense…If panicking is conventional failure, choking is paradoxical failure.”

Gladwell provides a useful illustration with the example of panicking/choking in test taking referencing studies on under-performing cohorts…

  • “But Steele says that when you look at the way black or female students perform under stereotype threat you don’t see the wild guessing of a panicked test taker. ‘What you tend to see is carefulness and second-guessing,’ he explains. ‘When you go and interview them, you have the sense that when they are in the stereotype-threat condition they say to themselves, ‘Look, I’m going to be careful here. I’m not going to mess things up.’ Then, after having decided to take that strategy, they calm down and go through the test. But that’s not the way to succeed on a standardized test. The more you do that, the more you will get away from the intuitions that help you, the quick processing. They think they did well, and they are trying to do well. But they are not.’ This is choking, not panicking. Garcia’s athletes and Steele’s students are like Novotna, not Kennedy. They failed because they were good at what they did: only those who care about how well they perform ever feel the pressure of stereotype threat. The usual prescription for failure–to work harder and take the test more seriously–would only make their problems worse.”

Embracing a bit of failure is actually a Heimlich manoeuvre for avoiding choking.

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