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.

Posted in Uncategorized.