Choke

At dinner in the not-too-distant past, Abby grabbed a piece of banana and shoved it in her mouth. Normally one to bite off a piece at a time, she decided that she wanted it all. She wanted a bite that mommy or daddy would take.

Shocked to discover that her mouth was now uncomfortably full, she chewed in vain, but it was no use. She choked. Mommy and daddy came to the rescue and extricated the banana from her mouth. To prevent a repeat occurrence, mommy sliced smaller pieces for her. She pushed them away. She had her fill.

Choking changes future behavior.

It’s the fourth quarter, and the Cowboys are poised to take a seemingly insurmountable lead. On the verge of a touchdown, the ball pops from quarterback Tony Romo’s hands. No score. The Cowboys make countless mistakes in the final 10 minutes. They lose by three.

Mistakes lead to more mistakes.

Travel to Flushing Meadows for the 2011 U.S. Open Men’s Semifinals. Roger Federer has taken a commanding two sets to zero lead over Novak Djokovic. One more set to win. Federer crumbles as Djokovic mounts an unrelenting comeback. Crushing victories followed in sets three and four. The final set appears to be headed for extra games, but Federer errs at the end, losing the final set 5-7.

Easing up before the finish opens doors for opponents.

In what many believe will be the last NBA finals for several years, the Miami Heat take a double digit lead into the final minutes of the game. The players jump and scream on the court, celebrating their near-certain victory. Stunningly, this display lights a fire in the Mavericks who reel off an impressive 22-5 run to steal the victory.

Celebrating victory prematurely is foolish.

America’s past-time, 2011. The historically inept Rangers are poised to take their first world series crown over the Cardinals. Two outs, two strikes. One more pitch and a victory for the nine fielders. Unless, of course, that pitch leads to a run. Hours later, players wonder how they let that game get away.

Intense pressure distorts execution.

Choking is a reflexive behavior. Abby choked because she tried to eat too much at once. The Cowboys choked because they feared making more mistakes would cost them the game. Roger Federer choked when he let up before finishing the match. The Heat choked after celebrating their victory instead of finishing the game. The Rangers choked because they let the pressure get to them.

In Abby’s case, well, she’s only one and gets a free pass for choking. For the rest of the evening, she was banana-averse–and for good reason, in her mind it was a dangerous behavior not worth trying again. As a one-year-old, she’s well suited for failure. She quickly forgets and tries again. The next morning, she returned to her normal, banana-loving self. Of course, mommy, daddy, and Abby are all more mindful to prevent this from happening again.

Well-paid athletes don’t get the same luxuries as small children. They are expected to perform under pressure and forget what happened in the past. The Cowboys have been dogged by their mental demons all year. Federer has been in steady decline after losing the edge to Nadal and Djokovic. The Heat came back, won game 3, but then lost the following three to cede the championship to the Mavericks. And so the question is: what will become of the Rangers?

Smart people choke from time to time. It’s inevitable. The foolish ones don’t learn from the past and relive it time and time again. The smart ones learn from the past and change their actions.

Here’s to the chokers.