How Not to Choke

(I apologize for not getting this post out yesterday. This part of Vermont has been hit by a snowstorm. The power has been on and off for the last two days. Unfortunately, I couldn’t post it yesterday when the power was out).

Monday (before the snow hit), I watched Mt. Abraham’s baseball team play against Harwood. When Harwood’s pitcher was warming up, the fans on the sidelines thought he looked good and wondered whether our batters might have a tough time against him. He had a good fast ball and seemed to have good control.

Things changed once the game started. Harwood was up first. Mt. Abraham got the first three batters out. Then Harwood’s pitcher took the mound. With his first pitch, he struck Mt. Abe’s batter in the back; he walked the second batter; and then struck the third batter in the head. Bases loaded. Had the fourth batter not moved out of the way on several pitches, he would have been hit as well. At that point Harwood’s #22 was moved to center field. Another pitcher took his place.

Where did the control go? What changed for that pitcher when the game started? Did he not have the ability—the control—to throw strikes over the plate, when during the warm-up it appeared as if he did? Or did he simply lose his ability once the game started?

It appeared that he was a victim of choking. I would love to talk to that player to find out what was happening when he was warming up. What was he thinking? What was his mood? How relaxed was he? What was he feeling? Once a batter stood next to the plate, what changed? Thoughts? Mood? Relaxation? Emotions? Often a coach will tell his athlete, “Relax! You’re trying too hard!” Good advice, but not easy to do.

When I was nineteen, I competed in the FIS World Championships in Val Gardena, Italy. Slalom was my best event. After the first run, I was in sixth place. Not bad, but I wanted to do better. I wanted to podium. I wanted to win—at the very least win a medal. As I memorized the course for the second run, that’s what I thought about—moving up and winning a medal. How to do that? The more I thought about winning a medal, the more nervous I got. At that point, ski racing wasn’t as much fun as it had been.

When I got to the top, I looked for my Dad in the crowd of spectators. He saw me and came to me. I shared my thoughts and nervousness with him. He was so calming! He had a little grin on his face and a glint in his eye, when he said, “I always thought you were the cool cucumber in the family!”

I just broke into a smile and said to myself, “Yeah, I am!” I stopped thinking about how I was going to do. I was confident that I could ski with the best of them. I did my best and ended up with the silver medal.

Two years later, I competed in the Olympics in Sapporo, Japan. This time I won the first run—not by much—three hundredths of a second. As I was memorizing the course for the second run, I could feel myself start to choke. I kept thinking, “I could win today! I could win an Olympic gold medal!!!” But the more I let myself think those thoughts, the more nervous I got. Finally, I told myself, “B.A. (that was my nickname), get a grip on yourself! You’ve got to calm down!”

I continued on my way. I fought to stay calm. I reminded myself, “I can only do my best.” I built up my confidence, “If the French girls can win, I can, too!” I prepared myself for defeat,” Even if I don’t win, I’ve won the first run and not very many people have done that. So no matter what happens now, I can always be proud of what I’ve already achieved!” I thought of my father and the World Championships in Val Gardena. Finally I was calm.

Second run, I ran fifteenth—after everyone who had a chance to overtake me. But I was able to stick to my game plan. I didn’t watch anyone ahead of me. I closed my eyes and visualized the course. I stretched and did my warm-ups. And then I slid into the tent.

Danielle Debernard had finished second on the first run. Before my second run, she was leading by about a second. That’s huge in ski racing. I didn’t know she had skied that well. I’m glad I didn’t because I could have easily choked thinking she was so much better than the rest of us on that run. I could have easily choked just thinking that all I needed to do was beat Danielle. Thinking about who you need to beat does not work. It just adds more pressure and increases the chance of choking.

When I slid into the start, I was just going to do the best I could. When I finished, Danielle had won that run by a hundredth ahead of me. But overall, I won by two hundredths.

The trick to not choking? Control your thoughts. Believe in your ability. Enjoy yourself. When you concentrate on the skills, the results will take care of themselves.

Do Goals Count?

After my son read my first post, “Getting the Results You Want”, he said, “So what you’re saying is that you shouldn’t set goals?”

Wow! That is not even close to what I meant. So if anyone else out there thought that was what I was saying, I apologize. Goals are important. They help you figure out where you want to go. They help you stay on a clearer path. Goals help you get things done. And best of all, when you complete a goal, you feel so good about yourself.

A goal is something for which to strive – something you’d like to accomplish. Yes, things would get done, even without goals. But goals are like the title in a recipe – goals describe what you want to accomplish, just as the title tells you what the recipe makes. You could follow the recipe and make a good product. But without the title, you’re guessing what the product might be. The title helps to prepare you mentally for what you will be making. Goals help focus your efforts.

For years now, Cochran’s Ski Club has prepared for the upcoming season with fall training. Often one of those days is spent on a hike. Fourteen years ago the hike was up Camel’s Hump, a favorite of our family. Among the group was my four-year-old son, Ryan, my six-year-old daughter, Caitlin, my sister, Lindy, her six-year-old son Robby, and myself.

After hiking 1.3 miles, we stopped for our second rest and snack. It was obvious we weren’t going to hike another 2.1 miles to the top or even to the meadow which was three tenths of a mile from the top. That was okay because we were outside on a beautiful day getting some exercise and having fun. (My goal).

The kids started talking about how cool it was going to be at the top and maybe they’d see the airplane wing. (Wreckage from an airplane crash in the forties is still visible). Lindy and I warned them that we probably wouldn’t make it to the top, but they could get started while we packed up. We’d catch up.

Lindy eventually overtook the boys and hiked with them to the top. I lagged behind, but finally caught up with Caitlin. We hiked until we got tired and cold before we turned around. I never dreamt Ryan could hike to the top of Camel’s Hump. He told me, “I knew I could do it and I did!”

When we had suggested that we probably wouldn’t make it all the way, Ryan and Robby both had set a goal that they would. They knew they had to hike faster; they were determined they were going to do it.

Without setting that goal, the boys would have continued to play, climbing boulders, picking up treasures, hiding and jumping out. Those goals would have been fine, except they really wanted to get to the top. Once they decided that, they began to truck! They were focused.

What impressed me more than anything, was how much achieving that goal meant to them. They bubbled with pride that they had hiked to the top of Camel’s Hump! Reaching a goal does indeed increase your self-worth.

Getting the Results You Want

Dad was a young man when he fought in WWII. Although he didn’t talk much about his experiences when I was growing up, I do remember him telling me about one of his early encounters of the horrors of war. After his first battle, he witnessed a wagon filled with dead bodies being pulled through a village where his battalion was then recovering. But the most shocking thing, was that he recognized two of the bodies on top—they were two of his buddies.

At that point, what went through his mind? Did he begin to form a plan to survive? Did he experience the hopelessness of war? Did he believe in the Allied cause? Did he ever think about the young men like himself he was trying to kill? Did he want to live? Did he believe he could survive? What thoughts filled his brain as he went about the business of war?

I’ll never know much of what he was thinking, but he did share one idea with my brother and sister. What he told them decades later when he began to talk a little about the war, was that for him, WWII got a lot easier when he realized he wasn’t coming home.

What did he mean? What’s the lesson here? Because I know he wanted to survive more than anything in the world. He had his whole life ahead of him. He wanted to meet the woman of his dreams, to have children, to play baseball. He wanted to raise a family, to finish college, to start a career. He wanted to see his mom again. He had so much for which to live.

When he told my brother and sister this experience from WWII, he wanted them to apply this lesson as athletes. What he realized was that there’s a lot of pressure when you focus intently on the result you want. The more you want that result, the more intense the pressure. The more intense the pressure, the more the result becomes stifled, and the less likely you will be able to create that outcome. He wanted my brother, sisters, and myself to understand that the more we focused on winning ski races, or beating a certain competitor, or qualifying for a particular team, or racing to lower our points, or winning an Olympic gold medal, the less likely we would be able to do what we so much desired. He wanted us to concentrate on the skills. Only then would the results take care of themselves.