Stop the Choking Cycle
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“Over the years I’ve noticed a trend where I lose too many close games and matches. I’ll often get into good position, ahead in most of the games and I feel like I have chances, but most of the time I seem to ‘steal defeat from the hands of victory…suggestions?”
Daniel Zimet, PhD, CC-AASP
You’re cruising along in the match, feeling good about your game and not really paying attention to anything at all. Then, as the end of the game or match nears, you think, “hey…I can win!” In hindsight, that’s when the wheels fell off the cart. Your game starts to disintegrate and your momentum slowly dries up. Your shots are not as crisp, the ball develops a nasty vendetta and refuses to do anything you want, and your opponent seems to be getting all the breaks. Like trying to hold too much water, the match drains through your fingers and you’re left frustrated and angry as you walk off the court. Watching your elated opponent doesn’t help, and neither does your friend who dryly comments, “you choked.” Although the experts define choking as “sub-optimal performance at critical points in competition” everyone who loves sports recognizes it as falling apart right when victory seems to be certain.
The mind of someone playing their ‘A game’ is serene and tranquil, ignoring interruptions from the outside world and empty of internal dialogue. Choking starts when you lose focus by thinking too much about your play or position in the match. Now you’re out of the present and dwelling on the past (e.g., a ‘bad break’ or missed opportunity) or the future (e.g., ‘just four more points!’). Two things happen when an athlete loses focus. First, our body loses fluidity as tension creeps into our muscles. Second, the part of the brain that monitors our actions by thinking about consequences and the suitability of our behavior takes over. This Thinking Brain is great for doing your taxes, but a miserable athlete; it focuses on the step-by-step process of playing handball, which is so deliberate and detailed it overloads our attention capacities quickly – leading to anxiety. It’s slow, robotic and timid/cautious. A Game Brain is unconscious, wisely instinctive, and flows from quiet confidence. Sadly, A-Game Brain is easily squashed when Thinking Brain kicks in. These issues ruin proper mechanics, timing, and power, inevitably leading to mental and physical errors – and feeding a spiral of failure.
As the spiral progresses the stress compounds, increasing anxiety, self-consciousness, and frustration. Now a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ part of your brain has taken control. Your energy has tanked, and every aspect of your game has fallen off. Unless it can be reined in, the conditions are ripe for choking. But how do you rescue the sinking ship?
Start off the court by considering your personal vulnerability to choking. Athletes who are confident, experienced, have a process attitude (i.e., play hard and show your best), and high physical fitness tend to do much better at avoiding choke-conditions than athletes who are self-conscious, have a win/loss attitude (i.e., wining is all that matters), play in few tournaments and/or don’t often challenge themselves with tough competition, and lack physical preparation. Athletes who are confident have less problems with choking because they expect to perform at their best at all times, and are far less concerned about what the world thing (i.e., “people will laugh if I mess up”). They tend not to think about task-related minutia, such as the mechanics of a shot, during play – they just do it. As a result, the confident athlete is better able to keep Thinking Brain quiet. You may also notice that players who finish well often play a lot of tournaments and stiff competition. The experience of facing your fears can profoundly increase your confidence.
During practice matches, try to ramp up the intensity by placing a creative or financial bet on your games, either with your opponent or with yourself. For example, bet a nickel-a-game and keep the money in a jar in your bag. Add a penny when you lose, and consider handicapping the score to stay at 50% pennies/nickels. During periods of intense training consider running an additional mile (or add 10-minutes on the bike) for every game lost in your prior match. After finishing a game, immediately start over at 17-17 with the loser serving first. Or finish practice days with a game to 11. Bottom line: use any technique that makes the intensity of practice games more closely mirror the intensity of tournament play.
Even the most confident and mentally tough athletes will at some point lose focus and get stuck in a bad mental cycle. Becoming quickly aware of your loss of focus is crucial, and then…
- Call a time-out (or glove change when legit) and restart your mind. Change your shirt and gloves while doing some deep breathing, then hydrate and (if you like) eat something small with fast energy. As you return to the court, do some deep knee bends and jumps to get your heartrate up again, and slap your hands together prior to the next point.
- Stick to your game plan and go with what’s been working. Play to your personal strengths. Drive to the finish by imposing your best game.
- Sian Beilock, author of Choke, encourages focusing on small extraneous details (like the dimples on a golfball) or speeding up non-action time as a technique that bypasses too much thinking. For instance, standing in the service box for a longer time-period than your normal service routine will almost always result in a bad serve. Ten seconds is enough time to step away, reset yourself, and start your service motion over.
- Use a positive, holistic focal word or phrase in your self-talk such as “drive” or “go.” Avoid specific mental instructions on your form or shot selection (other than choice of serve), as this contributes to over-thinking.
- Drop the score from your mind and play each point as though it’s a game in and of itself. Once that point is over, you have a new point/game to play. Reset your mind and start again. Say, “new point – new game” to yourself.
- Be merciless and impose your dominance. Get mentally and physically fired up for a big push to the finish by elevating your intensity mentally (powerful self-talk), physically (increase your heart rate), or with a well-timed stimulant (i.e., caffeine or sugar).
As you near the end of a match it’s easy to get distracted by the score. Mental lapses are normal, but a sustained loss of confidence, concentration and desire can turn catastrophic. Drive hard through the finish in as many tournament-like matches as you can conjure up to practice A-Game Brain during tight situations. And if you still find yourself on the losing end of a match you “should have won,” congratulate your opponent and remember that you’re playing for fun. Share your lament with fellow players and then look forward to next time.
MUSINGS FROM THE MASTERS
Thoughts from the Legends of the Game
Fred Lewis, Tucson, AZ. Six National Open 4-wall Singles titles, three National Open 3-Wall Singles titles. Prefers any ball any wall
I think the key to winning close matches is to try and stay even keel in terms of emotion and one’s ability to think. In other words, don’t get too pumped and over react or become timid and afraid.
An important factor is to know your opponent and try to exploit some of his or her weaknesses.
Another factor is to stay with what has worked the entire match and not do something else in order to try and “fool” your opponent.
If fatigue has set in take time out to gather yourself. Concentrate on making an effective serve or service return. If you have a set up and attempt a volleying ending shot, hit the ball hard instead of trying to “throw a dart.”
Charlie Wicker, Tucson, AZ. b 1934. 30+ National Masters Titles. Prefers 3 and 4-wall
I call it, “that’s Handball” syndrome. I have been a victim/recipient of that syndrome many, many times in National tournaments and in every day matches. Every single Mon, Wed. Fri. the lunch hour crowd has games they should have won and lost and games they should have lost and won. We were ahead 20-16 and managed to lose it”, “They had us 20-16 and we won it”. How does that happen?
The Answer: “That’s Handball!” The Tuesday League? Same scenario: “We had it and lost it” “They had us and we somehow end up winning”. The Tuesday League [a lot], 21-12, 11-21 no tiebreakers.
I have Won National tournaments and lost Nationals due to the “That’s Handball Syndrome”. I have seen Brady, Moreno, Lenning, Chapman, etc. all fall victims to the Syndrome. I probably even observed Zimet benefit or lose due to the Syndrome.
I’ll give you some of my thoughts on things you can try or things I have tried.
- I never take a time out when I’m serving. Lots of reasons.
- If your opponent runs 2 or 3. Think of taking a time out.
- If he is playing quickly, try to slow him down.
- IF he is slow, try to speed him up.
- If he has 20, and you have time outs, you might think of using them.
- If he has been successful with serves to the left, move to the left, make him think or change his serve. Same goes if he is serving to the right.
- If you can go to the ceiling, try some. Not applicable to Open Players. [In my opinion].
- Try going around the walls.
- What ever he’s doing seems to be working and what ever you are doing is not.
10 Most of the time he continues on and beats me or I continue on and beat him.
11 It’s like I said, It’s the “Handball Syndrome”.
Joseph Durso, Brooklyn NY. Handball Hall of Fame, Twenty-five National Open 1-wall titles (14 singles & 11 doubles). Prefers 1-wall small- and big-ball
The question, as posed, is incomplete, because no explanation was given as to why these failures were occurring, as a result, any response is simply going to be speculative in nature, but as always, I am up for talking handball, so I won’t pass up this opportunity to put my two cents in. Within the question itself is the proposition that our player is already ” better”, than his opponents, hence his winning scores at mid-game, but then towards the end, there is an intervening x- factor which causes a drop in his performance resulting in the subsequent loss of the matches which otherwise should have been wins. Thus, our player doesn’t need to get any “better”, he simply needs to not get worse in the end game stage. Let’s look at why this might be happening.
If fatigue and lack of stamina is the problem, then an easy fix is either loose some extra weight, start a cardio- exercise regimen, or try to get better at serving, thus forcing weaker returns reducing the need to volley as much and thus have a more energy in reserve for the end of the games.
If the problem is simply a loss of nerve or confidence which causes our player miss more at the end, or to attempt “safer” shots at the end, avoiding high risk winners, and as a result he doesn’t win as many volleys as he did earlier, then our player must either force himself to just keep shooting as he did in the earlier part of the game, or at least hit more shots he knows can make, reduce his miss ratio, and put the pressure back on his opponents to hit the winning shots, cause them to attempt shots out of there comfort range, and have them miss more.
Finally, there is another aspect to the game which deserves attention and may be at play here. What do winners do?? They win. Some players don’t play to win; they just like to play. Sometimes players simply lack that killer instinct, they want to be liked, they want to fit in, to be like everyone else, this herd mentality is deep within us and is culturally reinforced as well. Champions and winners must be able and willing to put all that aside, they must want to destroy their opponents, to beat them, to deny to them that which they want. They must be willing to impose their will on another man. Perhaps our player just doesn’t have that drive or desire and if he doesn’t, then nothing I say will help him win, because deep down, he simply doesn’t want to.
John Robles, Phelan CA. b1965. Highest professional ranking #3. 15 National Masters Titles, 4 Worlds titles, 1 Canadian Master Title, Southern California Hall of Fame. Prefers indoors (but I also love outdoors)
I think you alone can answer this question because It all boils down to mental toughness.
You have to play as loose as 0-0 but with the intensity of 20-20. Its all about focusing on the win and getting to 21 first. My attitude is; the person I am playing against is trying to take something from me and I will not allow this to happen. It takes 42 points to win in two and that’s exactly what needs to happen. Play hard at all times, finish the race, the game doesn’t end mentally till I have the victory. Even between games you need that focus, winning 42 points is everything.
Sean Lenning, Tucson, AZ. b. 1985. Seventeen National Open 3-wall titles (8 singles & 9 doubles), Worlds Open 1-wall title. Prefer to play outside
A former super bowl winner gave me beautiful advice on this matter. After hearing I squandered a big lead in a tiebreaker, he put on his serious face and demanded eye contact as he said, “when you have an opponent on the ground, you gotta stomp their face in.” amen.
G Michael Driscoll, Parker, TX. b. 1938. Twenty-five National Masters titles, 1, 3 and 4-wall, 9 Canadian Masters & 2 Worlds titles. Prefers 3-wall small-ball
Losing too many close games and matches over the years while being ahead in most games indicates losing to many different players over many years. Therefore, it would seem that no particular player or style of play was the main reason for losing to the opponents. The problem appears to rest within the player, himself. Some of the reasons for losing may be the following.
- Anxiety. The player realizes he has a good chance of winning and becomes nervous and chokes in a close match. The thought of being in a position to beat a player regarded as better leads to self-doubts of the final outcome. Obsessing on the possibilities of losing to the opponent is counter-productive. Be positive and concentrate on your shots. Don’t over think, you’ve got this far now finish the job!
- The end game. Your opponent realizes that he needs to concentrate more and adjust his game, if he is to win. He may overplay his position on the court to take away your most successful shots. You must realize his change in court position and use your most effective shots to take advantage of his vulnerable court position. At this point of the game you must also increase your concentration and court awareness. If your opponent scores a few points in a row take a time out to break his momentum, determine if he has adjusted his game or you have lost you concentration. After the time out you will need to make any strategic changes to counteract his adjusted style of play, if any.
- Endurance. Your inability to win close games may be due to conditioning. If that is the case, you may need to change your diet and/or sleep habits. Being too heavy or too light may cause mental and/or physical fatigue at the end of a game or match. Lack of proper rest will also have the same effects as poor diet. Exercise off the court will add strength and endurance. Avoid entering a match just after eating or weak from being undernourished due to inadequate spacing of meals. Also, keep well hydrated while playing.
- Pace yourself. If you are hitting every ball as hard as you can or chasing after every poor or impossible return you are not likely to have enough energy left to score the 21st point. Play a smart game and try to maintain your own strength while wearing down your opponent, if possible.
- Discuss your problem with someone who is knowledgeable of your game and is willing to offer constructive advice to you.
Vern Roberts Jr., Tucson, AZ. b 1954. Handball Hall of Fame, induction 2002. Preferred to play outside (prior to replacement parts)
“Choking” is not in my vocabulary. There’s just a couple of reasons for losing close matches.
Not in good enough shape (physical and mental). The physical is obvious but getting over the top in close matches requires both. You need to be able to execute the shot at the end of a hard match. That’s why it’s great to have tough practice games and regular competitions. That’s the only way to have the matches you’d experience in a tournament. Same thing goes for the mental, where you need to take the right shot(s) at the end of the long rallies that you’ll see in close games. In addition, staying on task at the end of a long match requires taking the right shots – even when you’re tired and mentally spent. That’s the mental conditioning necessary.
After playing a lot of long, close matches, you’ll know what shots work and what don’t when you need them. And, there may be times when you have to tell yourself what shot to take when you think you’re too tired to go for it. Keep doing what you know you can do – positive reinforcement to “go for it.”
Dave Dohman, Munster, IN. b 1956, Handball Hall of Fame, 2009. Nine National Open 3-Wall Doubles titles, 23 National Masters titles. Prefers 3-wall
I’m sure some of us rationalize our losses and never admit to choking but the truth of it is, we all “choke” at one time or another. The Hall of Fame is full of players that have all choked…. but they minimized the occurrences!
When we refer to a choke I typically think of an occurrence where victory was virtually a guarantee; therefore, a negative outcome occurring late in a match. I find it hard to admit a player choked simply because they lost to an inferior opponent. After all, isn’t our ultimate goal in sport to improve, minimize the mistakes and reap the benefits? Give the opponent credit for improving and persevering.
Best advice I can offer to minimize choking is stick to your game plan. Several of my worst “chokes” were due to a last second change in strategy, literally just as I was beginning a serve.
Plan the work, work the plan….
Naty Alvarado Jr., Spring Valley Lake, CA. b 1973. Top level pro handball for 24+ years. Prefers 4-wall.
Losing close matches comes down to losing focus or getting caught up in the moment.
Find the eye of the storm: Maintain a level head, proper breathing (relax), and stick to fundamentals.
Cesar Sala, Bronx NY. b 1977. Six National Open 1-wall titles (2 singles & 4 doubles), 1 Worlds Singles small ball. Prefers 1-wall small ball.
The idea of not finishing, choking, coming up short or not having enough left when it counts can really mess with an athlete’s psyche and confidence if not handled correctly. This is without a doubt a mental issue that everyone must encounter at some point or another. For me it comes down to self-awareness, preparation, experience, perspective and controlling my fears.
When I was younger and coming up I’d usually try to hit harder and push my way aggressively through pressure situations. I knew I could out run, out hit and outlast most of my competitors. That was effective for me because I was young and strong. It also made me a little erratic and whenever I faced a more experienced player who could control the pace. I noticed that most of my close game losses at that point were due to being overly aggressive. Cooling myself down at the end of games was the key to keep from getting too pumped up. I’d focus on my breathing to help me cope with pressure situations and it helped. As I watched the top players controlling the pace to favor their style of play I thought about how I’d defend against it while applying it to my game.
Taking notes and watching games helped me to perform in tight games as well. I took pride in knowing my opponent’s patterns and not only of their overall play but of how they’d react in certain situations as their instincts would inevitably take over. I had notes that I’d look at before playing matches with players that had beaten me or given me a hard time in the past. Whenever the games would get tight I’d think about whatever might apply to each situation and I’d feel confident that I was prepared. Over time that became more effective as I became more experienced.
My experiences have certainly contributed to my longevity in the sport of handball. As they say, if I only knew then what I know now. Although some experiences were more difficult for me to handle than others. Experience is a funny thing. When used correctly it can be your greatest asset but if not compartmentalized carefully it can be your greatest enemy. Whenever I got too high on my past successes it made me over confident leading me to lose some games cause I figured I could turn it on at any time. If I got too low dwelling on the bad experiences they’d haunt me whenever the pressure was on. I remember losing by a point at three different tournaments in the same year where the ball hit a line that was raised or indented causing the ball to drop or go over my head! That gave me nightmares and caused a lot of anxiety for some time. Eventually I was able to laugh it off and think back to those memories as something funny. I have truly benefited from all of my experiences through keeping things in the right perspective. It’s something that I try to exercise till this very day.
Keeping things in the right perspective has helped me control my fears. Fear of failure is a big one that I think we all have faced. I remember watching a Rocky movie where Rocky said fear is like a fire that if you control it it’ll make you hot! But if it controls you it’ll burn you and everything around you up. Mike Tyson also explained how he used fear to his advantage when he was at his best. He wanted to knock them out before they could knock him out. That fear drove him to greatness. If an athlete gets consumed by fear then he’d hesitate under the pressure and feel like he’s stuck in quicksand. I learned at a young age that failure can be a very important part of succeeding and growing. So whenever I feel that fear coming on it gets me excited cause it tells me that I care and that I’m in a moment to remember.
The bottom line for me is whenever I feel like I’m falling into a funk of losing tight games or feeling overly stressed in pressure situations I just breathe and remind myself that I’m as prepared as I can be, I’ve handled pressure situations before and no matter the result, I’m going to enjoy these moments so that one day I may reflect on them with a greater appreciation.