Last Updated on January 26, 2015 by Jimson Lee
This article is guest blogged by Paul Hoffman from My Two Cents: Thoughts of a Small Town Therapist. His previous article was titled Notes from Underground: A Rookie Master’s Sprinter Diary.
If you google “Asafa Powell and choke”, lots of not very scientific results appear. Mostly, his two fifth places in the Olympics are cited as examples of his ostensible lack of mental toughness, and his ostensible tensing up on the biggest stage. Not cited in the same breath are his nine individual sprinting medals in world championships (including 5 gold), more than anyone I could find, including Bolt (7), Gay (8), Lewis (8), Bailey (3), Christie(6), and Greene (8).
I’m inclined to think Asafa is not a choker. In my experience, chokers in sports are consistent about it. Big stages make them nervous, period. We are all consistent when it comes to our psychological frailties. It’s generally not a selective, situational occurrence, rather a trait that plays out across the board. I have a hard time believing that Asafa’s state of mind is significantly different in the Olympics than in the World Championships; except that everyone is talking about it now, which adds to the pressure ironically.
What is “choking” anyway?
So what is “choking” anyway? In general terms, choking is a situation in which an athlete, in a pressure situation, underperforms. Famous examples include Scott Hoch missing an 18 inch putt to win the Master’s, Scott Norwood’s missing the field goal in the Super Bowl, Jana Novotna blowing a huge lead at Wimbledon, and Bill Buckner’s missing a ground ball in the World Series. In psychological terms, choking is performance anxiety. In a nutshell, one thinks about something that didn’t have to be thought about. Athletes have plenty of muscle memory. That is, unlike beginners, they don’t have to think about the mechanics of sprinting, putting, kicking, swinging, and fielding. They’ve done it a million times. Performance anxiety is intense nervousness that results in over thinking, and negative thinking. Your body doesn’t need you to think! The muscles know what to do. Performance anxiety is also heightened self consciousness. You think too much, which tenses and changes your muscles, adversely impacting your muscle memory,and lowering performance. I remember my draft physical in 1972. Many guys couldn’t urinate into a cup on command, with others queued up behind them. Something so simple was interrupted because they were thinking “Oh my god they’ll laugh at me if I can’t do this”. Of course, they couldn’t.
Most people are nervous in the spotlight. The Michael Jordan’s of the world, who want the pressure, and who deliver, with confidence, sureness, and relatively no anxiety. are the exception, not the rule. In the Olympics, Usain Bolt might be on the starting line cockily saying to himself "no one can beat me, I’m the greatest". Someone else might be thinking “this is the Olympics, I better not blow it” and his muscles tense excessively and interfere with the performance. (Of course, too much brash confidence can result in carelessness, like Bolt’s false start last year.) He may have said to himself "I’m invincible…nothing can stop me", so he lost that anxious edge saying "be careful so you don’t false start". Brash, very confident people perform better when the pressure’s on; anxious people don’t, but they don’t make stupid mistakes either. (I’d rather have someone on my relay team with a little anxiety; he won’t drop the baton because he is thinking about it, whereas the brash guy will think he’s invincible and won’t be as focused on detail. I’d take the slightly tense-muscled guy as long as the baton makes it all the way around!)
In the meantime, I’m rooting for Asafa. Are you?
About the Author
Paul Hoffman is a Masters sprinter, psychotherapist and musician in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. He writes a blog entitled My Two Cents: Thoughts of a Small Town Therapist.
Markus JAGODITSCH says
I’m the sami opinion like you are!
I’m a 60 and 100m sprinter in Austria and really I always suck wenn my thoughts get in my mind!
And Asafa as he said run the same times since years no matter were and when!
Paul Hoffman says
Thanks Marcus. I appreciate it.
What are you counting as “World Championships?” He’s only won 2 bronze in World championships. World Athletics Final is not the same thing (he has won 4 there-still only totaling 6). But, I don’t think he’s a choker. Not quite the kind of Championship runner Bolt is or MJ was, but can’t really say choker.
Jimson Lee says
The “purest” in T&F only count Olympics & World Champs as “majors”, but wiki counts the WAF as a major: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asafa_Powell
Okay, fair point. But the WAF didn’t begin until 2003, so 4 of the 7 athletes named never had as many opportunities by that count. Plus, no rounds in WAF and rounds management is something people question w/ Asafa. But he did run great getting bronze in 09 (last major he competed in), 9.84, so we’ll see what he does this year.
Waf has never and will never be a major. Zurich was a bigger meet. He has 5 outdoor medals total! He’s choked because he has been the favorite on a number of occasions. The fact that your defending his losses is proof in itself. And no, indoors is not the same pressure. Less competition, less pressure. Nice try but you have fluffed his stats. And had the audacity to compare him to the greats! These men have the times, records and championships. Sorry, you’re factually inaccurate and reaching to validate a flawed position. I’m glad he has fans but just let the man be what he is.
We will create out own realities when it comes to Asafa Powell however I think just looking at how many times he’s run under 10 seconds and his consistency says it all. I wish him the best and believe he will get bronze at the Olympics.
Nice work Jimson
Pirie Enzo says
Asafa is destined to finish 5th again at the olympics. Bolt, Blake, Gay and Gatlin will finish ahead of him. Asafa will run 9.9x in the final.
We will all find out in a week or so…cant wait!!!
Jamaican athletes will dominate, entertain and create history in London In this our 50th year of independence. Enjoy
Scott norwood’s field goal miss was a 47 yard kick, not automatic by any stretch.