Sunday 9 December 2018

That choke isn't funny anymore in top-level sport

Off the ball

Steven Gerrard: slip-up. Photo: PA
Steven Gerrard: slip-up. Photo: PA

Ger Gilroy

For all the times we've seen a choke in sport, and the great writing that invariably attends them, I've always found the best description of the actual act of choking to be in The Smiths song 'There is a Light That Never Goes Out'.

When Morrissey's plaintive voice croons, "And in the darkened underpass, I thought, 'Oh God, my chance has come at last' (but then a strange fear gripped me and I just couldn't ask)", we know what he means. We've all had that strange fear grip us and we've seen it happen to world-class sports stars in their own 'darkened underpass'.

For the Atlanta Falcons, it happened in Sunday's Super Bowl, and now they have been accused of the biggest choke job in US sports history. One at least to rival Greg Norman at Augusta and the Warriors throwing away a 3-1 lead in the NBA finals last year.

Here Mayo stand constantly accused, Liverpool did it when Gerrard slipped and who knows how to characterise Ireland against Scotland when we were supposed to be the third or fourth best team in the world?

Matthew Syed's book 'Bounce' has become controversial because it builds on an erroneous interpretation of science by Malcolm Gladwell in 'Outliers'. It does, however, brilliantly draw on his own experience of choking in a high-level table tennis match and this part of the book endures.

He contends the brain uses an implicit system and functions without consciousness while things are going well; a choke results whenever the brain switches system and starts to be explicit about actions that should be routine. You start to think about what used to come naturally.

It makes sense in an individual sport but it's a concept that is a bit harder to buy in team sports. Take the Falcons, for example.

Sunday's game turns on various outrageous events occurring including chance bounces and missed penalties by officials.

Equally, there's one series which defines the game, when the Falcons are in field-goal range and get driven back so far they can only punt. Three failed successive running plays at that point would likely have been enough to win them the Super Bowl. If it was a choke it must be collective and that doesn't make obvious sense.

The randomness of elite team sport is a large part of its inherent beauty and I refuse to bow to simple characterisations like choking here. Perhaps, though, fear is contagious, especially when a strange one grips.

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