Choke (sports)

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In sports, a choke is the failure of an athlete game or tournament when the player or team had been strongly favored to win or had squandered a large lead in the late stages of the event. Someone who chokes may be known as a choker or, more derisively, as a choke artist. Choking in sport can be considered a form of analysis paralysis. It is often an over-used term in the sports world, where "choke" status is assigned to a team or player that only lost a small lead or was not heavily-favored to win.


Choking under pressure decreases the standard level of athletic performance, of an athlete when they may be at their peak performance.[1] Symptoms of choking may include, tightening up of the muscles, an increase level of anxiety and a decrease in self-confidence. Choking can leave an athlete feeling embarrassed or frustrated.


Choking is 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.[2]

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.”[3]

Distraction theory[edit]

Distraction theory was first suggested by Wine [4] 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 [3] 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.[5] Short term memory is used to maintain relevant stimuli and block irrelevant information as it relates to the task at hand.[6]

Self-focus theory[edit]

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.[7] There is more focus on the motor components of performance, consciously controlling movements with step-by-step control.[8]

Processing efficiency theory (PET)[edit]

Anxiety causes a shift in an athlete’s attention towards thought of performance consequences and failure.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12] Shifting requires adapting to changes in attentional control. Shifting back and forth between mental sets due to task demands.[13]

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.[14]

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.[15] 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.[16]

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.[16]


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.[16]

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.[17]

Choking and individual zone of optimal functioning[edit]

According to IZOF[clarification needed], introduced by Yuri L. Hanin[who?] 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.[18]

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.[19]

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 opponents body position, causing them to step in the wrong direction.

Examples of choking in sports[edit]

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.[citation needed]

In Game 3 of the first round of the 1982 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the heavily favored Edmonton Oilers, led by NHL legend Wayne Gretzky, blew 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.

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.[20]


The South African national Cricket team has gained a reputation as a frequent choker at global cricket tournaments conducted by the International Cricket Council. Despite being consistently one of the best-performing nations in all forms of cricket since its return from isolation, the Proteas have never progressed beyond the semi-final stage at a World Cup. This reputation was further cemented by the fact that South Africa had never won a game during the knock-out stage of the World Cup; a record which was broken in the quarter-finals of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015, when they won against Sri Lanka.[21][22][not in citation given]

This reputation arises largely from three events:

  • In the 1999 Super Six Stage, Herschelle Gibbs dropped eventual centurion Steve Waugh after which Australia went on to win the match,[23] then a shambolic run-out involving Allan Donald and Lance Klusener in the semi-final also 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.
  • In the Proteas' final game of Cricket World Cup 2003's group stage (which was effectively a knock-out match, as they had to win to progress to the super six), South Africa tied the rain-affected game against Sri Lanka which they could have won, after they misinterpreted the Duckworth-Lewis rain rule tables shortly before the match was called off.
  • During the 2015 Cricket World Cup South Africa yet again eliminated in the semi-finals by New Zealand during the match they came under pressure from making costly mistakes during the game which lead to New Zealand progress to the final of the Tournament.

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.[24] 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.[25]

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

American football[edit]

Use of the term "choke" in this context is most frequently encountered in the United States, and appears to be of relatively recent origin, not becoming reasonably widespread until well into the 1960s.[citation needed]

In a Wild Card playoff matchup between the Buffalo Bills and the Houston Oilers On January 3, 1993, the Oilers blew a 32-point lead[26] 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.[27]

In Super Bowl LI, the Atlanta Falcons blew a 28-3 lead late in the 3rd quarter by allowing the New England Patriots to come all the way back and win 34-28. The 25 point lead blown easily dwarfs the previous Super Bowl record of a 10 point deficit to come back and win, which occurred on 3 different occasions. [28]

In the 2015 NFC Championship Game, the Green Bay Packers choked in the 4th quarter against the defending champs, the Seattle Seahawks and their league best shutdown defense. The Pack led 19-7 with a little under 4 minutes remaining. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson scored a rushing TD to cut the lead to five. Packers tight end Brandon Bostick choked away a chance to win the game by fumbling the onside kick. Marshawn Lynch scored a TD but the Packers forced OT. The game ended with Wilson lobbing a deep touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse with 11:41 left in OT. Although the deficit faced wasn't huge, the Packers choked in grand fashion as they blew the game with a chance at competing in the Super Bowl on the line.

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 aforementioned Patriots for the second-largest comeback ever, at 28 points, and behind the aforementioned Bills comeback of 32 points.

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 the lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers in the wild card round.


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.[29] 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 [30] 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 blew 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 was 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. [31]

In the 2016 World Series, the Cleveland Indians lost a 3-1 series lead to the Chicago Cubs, who hadn't won a World Series championship in 108 years.

In the 2003 NLCS, the Chicago Cubs held a 3-2 series lead against the Florida Marlins. In Game 6, the Cubs had a chance to advance to the World Series for the first time in 60 years and win for the first time in 95. The Cubs led 3-0 in the 8th. Cubs' outfielder Moisés Alou attempted to catch a foul ball hit by Marlins' Luis Castillo. A fan named Steve Bartman interfered and caught the ball. That would've been the Cubs' 2nd out of the inning and they would've been four outs away from advancing to the World Series. After that, the Cubs choked by allowing 8 unanswered runs. The Marlins won the game and Game 7, and the World Series against the Yankees.

In the 2004 ALCS, the New York Yankees lost a commanding 3-0 series lead to their archrival Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox ended up sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2004 World Series.


Michigan's famous Fab Five team (Jimmy King, Jalen Rose, Ray Jackson, Chris Webber, and Juwan Howard) notoriously choked in the 1993 NCAA Basketball National Championship. Late in the game, superstar power forward Chris Webber tried to call timeout. It was a missed travel call. He tried calling timeout again but it ended up resulting in a technical foul. North Carolina won the game 77-71 and their 3rd national title.

Association Football (Soccer)[edit]

In the first knockout round of the 2016-17 UEFA Champions League, Paris Saint-Germain F.C. (more commonly known as PSG) blew 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. 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.[32]


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