Choking is the kind of failure that results from thinking too much. I know I’ve mastered a task so well that I do it without thinking. I hit a tennis ball. I’m a great tennis player. When I hit my forehand I don’t even think about it, I just hit my forehand. But then I’m at match point against this ferocious competitor and all the pressure in the world is on me and all of a sudden when I go to hit my forehand I think about it and that sort of takes me out of that unconscious zone that is necessary for excellence and I fail and we see it again and again with athletes.
With the game on the line in basketball and you’re doing the foul shot, all the sudden something you’ve done a thousand times in your life, you kind of unconsciously think about every single moment of it and you can’t do it that way.
Panicking is the opposite. It’s the kind of failure that comes from an absence of knowledge. I’m in a tight spot and I don’t know what to do. I’ve never practiced it. I’m driving down the road and my car slips on the ice and I have absolutely no clue about how to correct a slide. It’s never happened to me before. I’m 17 years old. What happens? I panic.
You’re in the water and you’re not a strong swimmer and all of the sudden you’re wearing clothes and you’re weighted down and the waves are choppy and you panic. So those are at opposite ends of the spectrum of failure. One is the kind of failure that afflicts people who are good at what they do and the other is the kind of failure that afflicts people who are inexperienced, who are not good at what they do. Sometimes I think we conflate these two things and we accuse the person who chokes of being a novice, of not having prepared, but in fact, no, no, no, they’re prepared.
In fact, they’ve prepared so well that when they’re outside of that kind of unconscious zone they’re lost, whereas the person who is panicking can be accused of a lack of preparation. They haven’t gone through the necessary training and experience to be able to handle this sort of tight situation.
So choking is honorable failure and panicking is dishonorable failure. I think it’s important to maintain a line between those two things.