If you’ve ever experienced choking in an athletic event, you will know that it is one of the worst experiences an athlete can have. I often differentiate two kinds of choking: a flub and a complete collapse. This piece will focus on the complete collapse, and the next one on the flub. For now, let’s let it stand that the difference between them is one of time: the flub takes place in an eyeblink, whereas the collapse unfolds over time, making it all the more awful and harrowing. Thus, it deserves a bit more attention.
In the collapse, one player or team goes from being in a dominant position in an event only to completely unravel, committing a number of almost inexplicable errors standing in stark contrast to the type of supremely wonderful and confident play that put them in the leading position in the first place. Examples of this include: Serena Williams’ meltdown at this year’s US Open; her loss to the unseeded Italian Roberta Vinci in the 2015 US Open final, keeping her from the remarkable feat of holding all the Grand Slam titles in one calendar year; Jordan Spieth’s back nine unraveling at the 2016 Masters; Dustin Johnson’s limb-loosening effort in the 2008 US Open at Pebble Beach; Rory McIlroy’s belly flop in the 2011 Masters; Jean Van de Velde’s awful gut wrench on the 18th at the 1999 British Open; and perhaps most famously, Greg Norman’s storied collapse in the 1996 Masters.
One thing that unites the flub and the collapse is a breakdown in the player’s ability to regulate their physiological response to the moment. With the proper monitors, you would be able to detect quickened breathing and elevated heart rate, sweat glands would be more active, and thoughts would race more, indicating the shift from parasympathetic to sympathetic nervous system. That is, even if it were to take place over an extremely short period of time, the brain of the sufferer would experience itself as under attack. These kinds of changes, even on the subtlest of levels, are enough to cause corresponding changes in the fine muscle work required for skillful action, no matter how rote, routinized through hours of practice, forged in decades of competitive experience. But, during a collapse, in addition to the physiological changes mentioned above, there is the additional one of nausea in the gut, owing to the activation of the vagus nerve, running from the brain to the viscera. This is why so many people in the midst of a collapse experience extreme nausea, and may throw up, or even lose control of their excretory functions. This is also why we have the expressions of “puking on oneself” or “soiling oneself” to describe this kind of event. Other physiological changes include an over-narrowing of vision or hearing, disorientation with respect to time, and even a sense of dissociation, that one is leaving one’s body altogether, watching helplessly as this is happening. All of a sudden, you cannot execute skills which have been so well honed they almost feel automatic. You are lost within your own house. And worse, you can’t find your way out. Such a collapse, and the resulting shame, can be extremely difficult to recover from, as you can tell from Jordan Spieth’s not having really made it back from his Masters’ episode, and from Greg Norman’s comments in his press conference after that round, saying that he’d be alright, that it was just a game, and that he had his money and his Maseratis to keep him warm. The puker doth protest too much.
OK, so what can you do? 1) Well, the first thing is to recognize the physiological signs early and accept that a collapse is upon you. You have to be consciously attuned to the elevated heart rate, hastened breathing, rapid thoughts [disbelief!], jittery hands, nausea, and then 2) intervene with THE BREATH. The breath, always crucial, can nip a collapse in the bud, if anything can. Make sure your breathing practices are solid. Breathing is the bedrock, the salvation, the true hail Mary of sport performance. Next, 3) plug back into your senses. As you feel yourself telescope back into the fun-house mirror of your head, plug back into the reality that is happening around you: the sights, the smells, and sounds of your competition. These are not just cues for you to get back into present reality, but they can be pleasant reminders for you of why you love your sport, and therefore shift you from fear to passion. If you have gotten to the point of leaving your body, 4) use your “snap out of it” skill. This skill, developed with your coach, can be a slap to your thigh, a snap of a rubber-band on your wrist, or a gentle slapping of your club or racket on some part of your body. Finally, 5) believe in yourself. Self-belief, another form of faith, is so powerful in a collapse. A confident stride is just the thing you need when you think you have forgotten how to walk. During a collapse, self-faith can be expressed in a number of mantras developed with your coach. “C’mon, Matt, you know how to do this.” “This feels new, but it’s old hat.” “You LOVE this.”
That said: the collapse might be such a totalizing experience that there’s not much you can do. Many people think that such collapses are due to inexperience, and that they’re more likely in younger athletes than in older. But, that’s not so true, as the Greg Norman and Serena Williams examples make clear. One thing is true: whether you ever recover from your total collapse is based on how you handle it after the fact. Athletes with a growth mentality, a process-oriented approach, can recover and use the experience to make themselves even better competitors. But, it doesn’t happen automatically: you have to be willing to walk back through it, moment by moment, in exposure format, to help rid yourself of the shame, and to learn as much as possible from what happened.* Just think about Rory McIlroy: two months after his Masters’ fiasco, he hoisted the US Open trophy, and three more major victories later, cites his collapse as the most important day of his career, and that “ I learned so much about myself” (http://www.espn.com/golf/story/_/id/12603182/rory-mcilroy-says-masters-2011-collapse-was-most-important-day-my-career). And, as I say at Altius, if that’s not winning, then I surely don’t know what is.
*On learning from losing, see my earlier posts: (“Learning from a Loss,” January 1, 2014; “Lessons from a Loss,” January 12, 2014; “Scott’s Lytham Opportunity: The only way out is through,” August 17, 2012.)