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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.