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How we can learn from the Clippers choke

To be brandished as “a choker” is arguably one of the worst insults in the sporting world. The disrespect to be considered a choker, but a bigger shame to actually be a choker. Choking is the severe deterioration in performance. It is performance that at some point was good, but ended abysmally. The worst instances of choking are when it is nearly a given that a team or player will win, but somehow they do not. They do not live up to expectations. They disappoint. In this instance the LA Clippers blew a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets, this has been brandished as the “biggest choke job in sports history.” The Clippers are now seen as “choking dogs” and “choke artists.”

But don’t mistake choking for poor performance. When a team/athlete chokes they actually turn up, performance-wise. They look like they can win, they look like a decent side. But it falls apart at some point. The lead they have disappears, the comfort or enjoyment they’re experiencing falls away. There is no saving them. It is dramatic, it is catastrophic. During this year's NBA Finals, the Clippers blew a 13 point lead in Game 5, blew a 19 point lead in Game 6, and blew another double-digit lead in Game 7. There is no doubting that the Clippers didn’t just perform poorly; they choked.

Reggie Miller of the Indiana Pacers indicating to Spike Lee that the New York Knicks were choking during the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals.

The choking experience extends further than the on-court depletion in performance. The short term effects of choking are tragic: the vitriol, the memes (we’ve seen them all), turning into a laughing stock, the lack of a championship or silverware. The psychological effect is painful: the confidence knock, inability to focus, failure to retrieve performance, increased negative thinking, lowered enjoyment of the sport, the diminishing of self-esteem, self-worth, and wellbeing. But although there is an immediate negative affect and challenge to an athlete’s wellbeing, it can be reframed as a more positive experience.

This experience will give the team an opportunity to take a long hard look in the mirror and evaluate their behaviour during pressurised situations. Are they behaving as effectively as they can? It allows for the introduction of pre-match routines, alternate to a more process focus. The short term negative consequences are just that: short term. If they allow them to be and don’t let them fester into something greater. If a team doesn’t come together and decide they will overcome this set back it can lead to some athletes withdrawing altogether. The negative impact can be minimised if teammates can come together and offer each other support, even support from a professional can be hugely beneficial.

There are two trains of thought following a choke: how can I learn and improve from this and this is the worst thing in the world. The more destructive approach can lead to a dislike of the sport, drop out, and even in some cases destructive behaviours extending to alcohol and drug abuse. The experience would cause a huge knock to the mental health and wellbeing of the athlete. The failure to deal with the situation would only exacerbate this when faced with a choking experience again.

But the long term impact of choking can be constructive. In some cases, athletes are not accustomed to the heightened pressure and experience of the playoffs. Athletes who experience an instance of choking will be more cognisant of it happening again, they will know how to prevent it in the future. Ironically experiencing an incident of choking can increase self-confidence in the longer term. The athletes will have experienced such a high pressured situation that they will know how to cope and deal better in the future. They indirectly increased their self-confidence for having gone through such a pressured and intense situation.

People tend to shy away from stressful situations, but choking can show that the only way to deal with pressurised situations is by replicating them in training and practicing under pressure. Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable if you will. Adversity is key in enabling talent. So for some players enduring this tragic Finals series will be the very thing that ignites their talent. We might not see the effects next season but we should see it further down the line.

In short, athletes will experience similar short term consequences following the choke, all of which will be seen as destructive and harmful, including increased negative thinking and lowered self-confidence and self-worth. But it is the longer-term effects where the athletes will begin to differ. Many will continue to experience destructive outcomes while others will find the experience constructive and will ultimately inform their performance later. Constructive behaviours consist of an ability to perform under pressure, an increase in mental skill, adoption of coping strategies, and process goals. There is no way to say how it will pan out for the Clippers, the only thing I can say is that the team will experience a combination of both destructive and constructive outcomes. The players that take this series as a learning experience will be better for it.

So what can we learn from the Clippers choke? Just as the players had a choice following the catastrophic incident, so do we when we encounter challenging and difficult situations. We cannot control the adversity we will face, but we can control how we react to it. We can further contribute to the negative thoughts and lean into the destructive behaviours or we can change our approach and learn by being more constructive. The shorter-term effects will still be difficult but we can influence the longer-term effects for the better. We will be better for having gone through it if we allow the experience to shape and educate us for the future. Many Clippers players will see this as an opportunity to make their comeback greater than their setback. They have a choice, and so do you. So what will it be?

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