Nuthin’ to Fear – Playing to Win…Choking as a thing of the Past.

On Failure: Choking, Fear, and “Runnin’ out of gas”

A couple of good articles on the subject of Fear and Choking in sports.

The Malcolm Gladwell article – “The Art of Failure” (The New Yorker Magazine. August 2000)

It appears from the reading that the best defense from fear and choking in the Big Game is to take a few deep breaths, relax and just play. Fear, doubt, or insecurities causes tensing up, which leads to thinking through the processes versus just playing. Thinking causes errors and mistakes, which appear to be the main culprits of choking. Proper advance preparation, coupled with in-game deep breathing, relaxing, and just playing tend to be the cure for the issue. Role-play choke situations against the Celtics or Lakers, Olympic team, #1 college team, etc. Learn to play through the ‘can’t win’ assumptions.
Role-play panic situations (press-trap-inbounds-sideouts-end of game-last shot, other scenarios) to develop fallback options to these situations.

Stress=Choking (one begins to assess the situation, to think): Don’t think, Just play, darnit.

Stress=Panic (can cause short-term memory loss, narrowing of focus):
Deep Breathe – Think/Do what worked in previous situations. Use your fallback options. Resolve (will) to Win.

Panic, in this sense, is the opposite of choking. 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.

Coming up short or ‘Running out of gas‘ can depend on several contributing factors including: Lack of proper pregame mental conditioning, lack of proper overall physical conditioning, lack of adequate rest between contests, poor nutrition/nutritional intake, continued over exertion over a short span – ‘burnout’ (several games in a few days time), insufficient oxygen intake (if games are played at altitude), among others.

Good coaching and coaching strategies should take care of the mental/physical conditioning if properly addressed.

Players nutrition levels, activity/games pacing, and adequate rest periods demand continuous staff monitoring, scheduling, and adjustment. As such these too are the province of the Coaches. However, the Strength & Conditioning staff has the responsibility to educate the other coaches and athletic department staff, and to be the health advocates/spokepersons in these areas. Proper game-planning should include and be aware of the health/pacing implications associated with travel, extended roadtrip swings, rest between and after travel, water intake & nutrition patterns. S&C staff can make recommendations via the Team Health Plans to eliminate, reduce, or mitigate, travel and health risks based upon current state of the art medical and nutritional knowledge.

S&C staff have charge of the players from a health perspective, in consultation with the team Physician. Together, with assistance from experts at the CU/St Josephs Medical Center, they should develop a Team Health Plan for each sports team. Using the players PE, lab testing, and medical history, the Health team can develop a subset plan folder tailored for each player. These three areas – Nutrition, Pacing, & Rest should not be left to chance, nor should they go unmonitored by the coaching staff. Recordkeeping and player health/nutrition education is important. Ensuring energy levels are maintained is crucial. Developing /reviewing performance milestones-key indicators will help to maintain maximum player effectiveness. Maintaining Potassium levels as well as body fluid/hydration levels and pH are all very important to performance. Each Team Health Plan and its’ subsets, including player folders must be reviewed annually, and updated as needed.

Bench personnel should maintain a supply of potassium rich fruit/veggies, juices, or fruit drinks fortified with potassium, as well as water, available for the team. Fruits such as Bananas, Apples, Cantaloupe, Honeydew, Kiwi, & Oranges or their natural juices are rich in potassium or buy potassium fortified fruit drinks. My personal favorite is V8 or fresh bananas. By eating or drinking these fruits/juices periodically throughout the day, one can buildup a potassium-load, from which to draw upon during gametime. This is not contrary to any sports rules, but should be monitored by the S&C coaching staff.

When playing in arenas at altitude, supplemental oxygen should also be available, and liberally USED to avoid O2 depletion. Use of supplemental O2 and other special needs or devices should be included as a chapter within the Team Health Plan, and signed off on by the team physician.

Bottomline: Proper prior planning and preparation prevents poor performance.

Use of game simulations, roleplaying, and situation(al) awareness are useful tools to prepare the team. These tools will take surprise, stress, and panic out of the gametime equation.
Role-play choke situations against the Celtics or Lakers, Olympic team, #1 college team, etc. Learn to play through the ‘can’t win’ assumptions. All teams have weaknesses. Study their weaknesses and situational tendencies, disrupt their gameflow, take away their main weapon or their most valued skill…anticipate – react – capitalize on their shortcomings. Play to your strengths and force the opposition to second guess/doubt themselves by forcing them to play to their weak points and capitalizing on their chaos.

Role-play panic situations (press-trap-inbounds-sideouts-end of game-last shot, other scenarios) to develop fallback options to these situations. Depending upon only one option is both predictable and unreliable, as a given situation is similar, not identical. (Exp: SG can take last shot if open. However, rather than drive the lane and throw up a prayer against 3 defenders, has the option to kick ball out to open man on the baseline. Not done vs Nevada, but was great against URI. Pass to the open man off Pick against ORU.) Practicing these situations on a regular basis engrains the proper responses. Should it arise, any panic will be aborted by the repetitive training and the proper conditioned responses.

All the Best on your path to your Best. The Best is yet to come.