Choke (sports)

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In sports, a choke is the failure of a sportsperson or team in a game in a situation where maintaining their performance is highly important.[1] This can occur in a game or tournament that they are strongly favored to win, or in an instance where they have a large lead that they squander in the late stages of the event. It can also refer to repeated failures in the same event, or simply infer an unexpected failure when the event is more important than usual.

Most athletes experience physical and mental changes during stages of increased tension in competition. They may change their strategy as a coping mechanism, and play more cautiously as a result.[2] In instances where this strategy fails, a player or team many lose confidence to the point of panic, where they are incapable of completing the most rudimentary of tasks.[3][4] Choking in sport can be considered a form of analysis paralysis.[5]

The term itself is often an over-used, or even derisive term in the sports world, where "choke" status is assigned to a team or player that was simply unlucky. The term "clutch" is gaining popularity to describe the opposite of choking.[6] Outside of North America, other terms, such as 'bottling it', 'lose one's nerve', or 'panic' are more widely used.


Choking under pressure decreases the standard level of athletic performance, of an athlete when they may be at their peak performance.[7] Symptoms of choking may include tightening up of the muscles, an increased level of anxiety and a decrease in self-confidence. Choking can leave an athlete feeling embarrassed or frustrated.


Choking is sometimes caused when an athlete becomes distracted, their thoughts become negative or unproductive and when they worry about things they cannot control. Anxiety is built up from negative self-talk and doubt which leads to choking.[8] The source of the pressure can vary, which leads to the choking itself manifesting in different ways. In some instances the a player or team's first game, or a big occasion can lead to anxiety similar to stage fright, which may result in a poor start, or being on the receiving end of a rout. In other instances, the closeness of victory leads to increased anxiety, which may in turn lead to a dramatic loss.

In the chaotic arena of a sporting contest, it is sometimes hard to identify if a player or team has panicked, or was simply victim to a strong finish by their opponents. Many athletes will play down publicly any notion of a loss of nerve, to prevent this being seen as a weakness.

Explicit monitoring theory[edit]

The explicit monitoring theory provides an explanation for athlete’s under-performance at the precise moment they need to be at their best. Sian Beilock and Tom Carr suggest that “pressure raises self-consciousness and anxiety about performing correctly, which increases the attention paid to skill processes and their step-by-step control. Attention to execution at this step-by-step level is thought to disrupt well-learned or proceduralized performances.”[9]

Distraction theory[edit]

Distraction theory was first suggested by Wine [10] to explain under-performance in performance pressure situations. Distraction theorists argue that pressure creates a dual task situation which draws attention away from the task at hand. Attention is then focused towards irrelevant stimuli such as worries, social expectations, and anxiety [9] Wine first tested his hypothesis with academic tests but it has since been applied to athletics.

Research has found that distraction theory is supported in situations where working memory is used to analyze and make decisions quickly.[11] Short term memory is used to maintain relevant stimuli and block irrelevant information as it relates to the task at hand.[12]

A study at Arizona University looked at how athletes of different levels of experiences responded to distraction and self-analysis, and found that novice baseball players were more likely to see a drop in performance from a distracting noise. However, it also found that more experienced players were more susceptible to underperformance when they were asked to focus on their technique.[13]

Self-focus theory[edit]

This theory predicts a decrease in performance is due to attention being shifted to movement execution. Any combination of factors that increase the importance of performing is considered performance pressure. Baumeister’s self-focus theory suggests responding to performance pressure can lead to an increase in self-consciousness which then results in choking.[14] There is more focus on the motor components of performance, consciously controlling movements with step-by-step control.[15]

Processing efficiency theory (PET)[edit]

Anxiety causes a shift in an athlete’s attention towards thought of performance consequences and failure.[16] An increase in worry decreases attention resources. According to PET, athletes put extra effort into their performance when under pressure, to eliminate negative performance. Eysenck and Calvo found processing efficiency is effected by negative anxiety more than performance effectiveness. Efficiency being the relationship between the quality of task performance and the effort spent in task performance.[17]

Attentional control theory (ACT)[edit]

Eysenck and Calvo developed ACT an extension to PET, hypothesizing an individual shifts attention to irrelevant stimuli. Stress and pressure cause an increase in the stimulus-driven system and a decrease in the goal-directed system. Disruption of balance between these two systems causes the individual to respond to salient stimuli rather than focusing on current goals.[18] ACT identifies the basic central executive functions inhibition and shifting, which are affected by anxiety. Inhibition is the ability to minimize distractions caused from irrelevant stimuli.[19] Shifting requires adapting to changes in attentional control. Shifting back and forth between mental sets due to task demands.[20]

Attentional threshold model[edit]

According to the attentional threshold model, a performance decrement is caused by exceeded threshold of attentional capacity. This model combines both the self-focus models and the distraction models. The combination of worry and self-focus together causes a decrease in performance. Attentional Threshold Model suggests that choking is a complex process involving cognitive, emotional and attentional factors.[21]

Contributing factors[edit]

Factors of choking may include, individual responsibility, expectations, poor preparation, self-confidence, physical/mental errors, important games/moments and opponent’s actions.

Fear of negative evaluation[edit]

FNE is a psychological characteristic that increases anxiety under high pressure. Creates apprehension about others evaluations or expectations of oneself.[22] FNE is similar to motive to avoid failure (MaF). The need to avoid negative evaluation from others, avoid mistakes and avoid negative comparison to other players.[23]

Presence of an audience[edit]

The presence of parents, coaches, media or scouts can increase pressure leading to choking. An athlete wants to perform their best while being observed and trying not to make any mistakes increases the amount of pressure they are under.[23]


Being over-confident can cause negativity to take over quickly. Not expecting something negative to happen can cause a choke. Having low self-confidence leads to more mistakes, because you do not think you can do anything.[23]

A study done by Wang, Marchant, Morris and Gibbs (2004) found poor performance associated with high self-conscious individuals. An individual with high self-consciousness focuses their attention to thoughts relating to the task (i.e., “did I step right?”) and to outside concerns (i.e., “will people laugh if I mess up?”). Individuals with low self-consciousness can direct their attention outward or inward because self-concerns do not dominate their thinking.[24]

Choking and individual zone of optimal functioning[edit]

According to the Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning theory (IZOF), proposed by Russian social and sport psychologist Yuri Hanin as an instance of the earlier-discovered Yerkes–Dodson effect, an individual’s best performance is when their anxiety level is in a certain zone of optimal state of anxiety or affect. Too much or too little anxiety can lead to performance decrement. Determining athletes’ optimal prestart state anxiety level leads to achieving and maintaining that level throughout the performance.[25]

Choking can occur if the athlete is outside their anxiety zone. Programs such as IZOF help identify an athletes anxiety zone creating a balance between arousal and somatic anxiety. Low arousal can lead to broad attention taking in irrelevant and relevant cues. High arousal can create low attention causing important cues being missed.[26]

For example a lacrosse goalie with low arousal may focus more on whether or not a college scout is watching them, rather than focusing on the opponent who is about to score on them. A lacrosse goalie with high arousal may focus more on the opponents stick position instead of the opponent's body position, causing them to step in the wrong direction.

Examples of choking in sports[edit]

American football[edit]

On December 7, 1980, the New Orleans Saints, on their way to a 1-15 season, were up 35-7 at halftime and looked like they were going to blow out the San Francisco 49ers. Quarterback Archie Manning had thrown 3 touchdown passes and halfback Jack Holmes ran for 2 scores. However the 49ers, led by quarterback Joe Montana, rallied back with an unanswered 28 points to send the game into overtime and eventually win, 38-35. This is tied with the Chiefs in the 2013 AFC Wild Card game versus the Colts for the second-largest comeback ever, at 28 points, and behind the Bills' comeback of 32 points.

In a Wild Card playoff matchup between the Buffalo Bills and the Houston Oilers On January 3, 1993, the Oilers lost a 32-point lead[27] to lose in overtime, the largest in a playoff game in NFL history. This game is known to this day as The Comeback, or locally in Houston as The Choke.[28]

In 2010, the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles clashed in a memorable rivalry matchup dubbed the Miracle at the New Meadowlands. The Giants had a 24-3 lead in the second half. Eagles quarterback Michael Vick lead a miraculous comeback scoring four unanswered touchdowns in the final 7-and-a-half minutes of gametime. The comeback was completed by wideout DeSean Jackson returning a punt 65 yards as time expired to give them the improbable 38-31 victory. This game had serious playoff implications and the Eagles ended up advancing where they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers in the wild card round.

In the 2014 NFC Championship Game, the Green Bay Packers choked in the 4th quarter against the defending champions, the Seattle Seahawks and their league-best shutdown defense. The Packers led 19-7 with a little under four minutes remaining. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson scored a rushing touchdown to cut the lead to five. Packers tight end Brandon Bostick then missed a chance to clinch the victory, by fumbling the onside kick. Marshawn Lynch went on to score a touchdown, but the Packers came back to force overtime. The game ended with Wilson lobbing a deep touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse with 11:41 left in overtime. Although the deficit faced wasn't especially large, the Packers’ meltdown was significant, as they blew the game with a chance at competing in the Super Bowl on the line.

Association Football[edit]

The England National Football Team has been noted in the last 30 years especially for their under-performance in major tournaments, and for their lack of success in penalty shootouts.[29][30] They lost shootouts against Germany in the 1990 World Cup Semi Finals, and in the 1996 European Championship Semi Finals. They lost a shootout against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup Second Round. They then lost two shootouts against Portugal in successive tournaments in 2004 and 2006. Most recently they lost a penalty shootout to Italy in the 2012 European Championships. They have also had notable instances of losing or under-performing in important matches, such as the loss against USA in 1950, surrendering a two-goal lead to West Germany in 1970, drawing against Poland in 1973 when they needed to win to qualify for the World Cup, and losing against Iceland in the 2016 European Championships.

In the 1999 UEFA Champions League Final Bayern Munich conceded two goals in injury time to lose 2-1 to Manchester United. Despite the setback, they went on to win the Champions League two years later.[31]

In the 2005 final, AC Milan lost on penalties having led 3-0 at half-time. The match was dubbed the "Miracle of Istanbul", with Liverpool scoring three goals in six minutes to draw level. Andriy Shevchenko saw his decisive penalty kick saved by Jerzy Dudek to settle the match. [32]

In the first knockout round of the 2016-17 UEFA Champions League, Paris Saint-Germain F.C. lost a 4-goal aggregate lead to FC Barcelona. PSG had won the first leg at home by 4-0, and had scored an away goal at the Camp Nou to lead 5-3 on aggregate after 88 minutes. However, two late goals from Neymar and a stoppage time winner from Sergi Roberto gave Barcelona a 6-1 win on the night and a 6-5 triumph on aggregate. Some commentators have called this one of the biggest chokes in footballing history.[33]

Australian Rules Football[edit]

Although Collingwood Football Club are one of the most successful teams in the AFL, between their titles in 1958 and 1990, they lost 8 successive Grand Finals. Most notably they lost a 44 point lead in the 1970 Grand Final to Carlton, the second largest lead lost in the history of the AFL. They also previously lost to St Kilda in 1966 by a single point, and later lost the 1977 Grand Final in a replay to North Melbourne, having tied the first match. Their unlucky run was dubbed 'The Collywobbles'.[34]


Prior to 2014, the University of Mississippi (aka "Ole Miss Rebels") baseball team had gone 0–6 in NCAA Super Regional games, at home, after winning the first game in their three most-recent best-of-three series.[35] Another example was during the 2012 NCAA baseball regionals when the Rebels were 2–0 and one win from advancing to the Super Regionals, but lost two straight games to TCU and failed to advance. In reference to the University of Mississippi baseball team's then 41-year absence from the College World Series, rival fanbases [36] coined OMAHA (the Nebraskan city in which the NCAA College World Series is played) as an acronym for "Ole Miss At Home Again". However, after defeating The University of Louisiana at Lafayette in the 2014 Super Regional, Ole Miss finally advanced to the College World Series for the first time in 42 years, winning two games and advancing to the semi-finals. Most recently, the Rebels lost an 8-5 lead in the 8th inning against the then No. 2 Texas A&M Aggies in the semifinals of the 2016 SEC tournament after giving up seven unanswered runs in the final two innings of a game that would have secured the Rebels a national seed in the NCAA tournament. Ole Miss still hosted a regional, but were eliminated after losing to the regional's No. 4 seed Utah in extra innings and then to the No. 2 seed Tulane after blowing a 9th inning lead. In 2018 No. 4 National Seed won the first two games of their host regional before losing to Tennessee Tech 15-5 and 3-2 in back to back games. [37]


In cricket, when an individual player nears scoring a 100 runs (a century (cricket), it is commonly stated that they are in the nervous nineties.[38] A player may bat more conservatively to avoid giving away his wicket cheaply, and this may either be positive or detrimental to their chances, depending on their playing style and temperament.

The South African national Cricket team has a reputation of choking at the Cricket World Cup. Despite being one of the best-performing nations since their return from isolation, the team have never progressed beyond the semi-final stage at a World Cup.[39][40]

Most notably in the 1999 World Cup semi-finals, a shambolic run-out involving Allan Donald and Lance Klusener in the against Australia ended South Africa's second innings with the scores tied. Australia progressed on the basis of its superior run rate through the tournament.[41] They also tied a rain-affected game against Sri Lanka in 2003, which they could have won, after they misinterpreted the Duckworth-Lewis rain rule tables shortly before the match was called off.

In addition to surrendering commanding positions in the above matches, South Africa suffered upset losses against the West Indies in 1996 and New Zealand in 2011.[42] South Africa's win in the 1998 ICC KnockOut Trophy remains their only international tournament victory to date.

The English national Cricket team, despite being consistently among the top half dozen ranked teams in international cricket, have only won one global tournament so far, the 2010 ICC World Twenty20, and are noted for having thrown away winning positions in several high-profile games, including:

  • In the 2004 ICC Champions Trophy final, England had put themselves into a dominant position by reducing the West Indies to 147/8 chasing a target of 218, but failed to prevent tail-enders Courtney Browne and Ian Bradshaw from putting together an unlikely partnership of 71 to win.
  • In the 2013 Champions Trophy final against India, England batted second and got into a position of needing just 20 runs off the last 16 balls, with six wickets in hand, but lost four wickets in the space of eight balls and lost the match by five runs.[43]

The Royal Challengers Bangalore, a team of the Indian Premier League franchise have also earned the tag of being chokers


Greg Norman was leading the 1996 Masters Tournament by six strokes after three rounds, but scored a 6 over par 78 to allow Nick Faldo to win by five strokes, with a 5 under par 67. [44][45][46]

Jean van de Velde only needed a double-bogey 6 to win the 1999 British Open. Instead he scored a triple-bogey 7 on the 18th hole and entered a play-off which he lost. [47] [48]

Rory McIlroy led the 2011 Masters Tournament from the start of the tournament, and led by 4 strokes before the final round, but ended up falling out of the top ten at the tournament, after dropping six shots in three holes in the closing stages. [49][50]

Horse Racing[edit]

Although it is doubtful that horses are subject to the same emotions that cause humans to choke, some jockeys have been remarkably unlucky in important races. Richard Pitman was leading by 20 lengths on Crisp in the 1973 Grand National, but failed to keep his tiring horse in a straight line in the run up to the elbow, and lost to Red Rum by three-quarters of a length.[51] He had also lost the previous month's Cheltenham Gold Cup on Pendil, having been ahead by four lengths with half a furlong to go, before The Dikler, ridden by Ron Barry overtook him at the line.

Ice hockey[edit]

Four NHL teams have taken a 3–0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, only to lose 4–3 in the best-of-seven series: the 1942 Detroit Red Wings, 1975 Pittsburgh Penguins, 2010 Boston Bruins, and 2014 San Jose Sharks.[52]

In Game 3 of the first round of the 1982 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the heavily favored Edmonton Oilers, led by NHL legend Wayne Gretzky, lost a 5-0 lead to the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings won 6-5 in overtime and pulled off the stunning upset knocking off the Oilers 3-2. The Kings ended up losing in the second round against the Vancouver Canucks, who advanced to the championship round.[53]

On February 20, 2014, at the Winter Olympic games in Sochi, Russia, in the Women's Gold medal game between Team USA and Team Canada, the US was up 2–0 in the third period with only 3:30 minutes left in the game. The Canadian team rallied and scored, bringing the game to 2–1. The US had an opportunity to score into the empty net but hit the goal post instead. Then Canada tied the score in the third period with 55 seconds left and won the game in sudden death overtime.[54]

Rugby League[edit]

The National Rugby League (NRL - Australia) has seen many chokes in its history but since the competition re-united in 1998 after the ARL and Super League War, the Parramatta Eels have been serial offenders. The Eels led the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 18-2 with ten minutes remaining in the second preliminary final of 1998, but lost this game in extra time.[55] In the first preliminary final of 1999, the Eels were leading the Melbourne Storm 16-6 at half-time, and lost 18-16. In 2001 the Eels lost the Grand Final to the Andrew Johns-led Newcastle Knights. In 2005, the Eels were the minor premiers and lost the second preliminary final to the North Queensland Cowboys 29-0.[56]


Snooker, where a player's nerves are an important aspect of the game, produces many instances where a player fails to close out a match, or are unable to produce on the big stage. Mike Hallett was leading 7-0 and 8-2 in the Masters final, a first to nine frames match against Stephen Hendry, before Hendry came back to win 9-8.[57]

Jimmy White reached the final of the World Snooker Championship six times, and lost each time, against Steve Davis, John Parrott and Stephen Hendry. Notably he lost a 14-8 lead to Hendry in 1992, losing 18-14. Two years later he missed a black off its spot in the final and deciding frame to gift Hendry another title. To add insult to injury it was his 32nd birthday on the day. [58]


In the 1993 Wimbledon final, Steffi Graf played Jana Novotná. After Novotná lost the first set, she won 10 of the last 12 games, leading 4-1, serving at 40-30. She then hit the worst 2 serves of her career, and went on to eventually lose 7-6, 1-6, 6-4. [59][60]

Daniela Hantuchová's mental fragility has been a factor in many of her losses, particularly in 2003 when her parents were in the process of a divorce. At the French Open she lost in the second round in a marathon match to Ashley Harkleroad 7–6(2) 4–6 9–7 making 101 unforced errors, [61] but more famously she lost in the same year in the second round of Wimbledon to Shinobu Asagoe 0–6 6–4 12–10, with Hantuchová breaking down crying during the latter stages of the match after missing three match points and making numerous unforced errors. [62]

See also[edit]


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