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Those of you who watched David Ferrer come agonizingly close to pulling off an upset against Andy Murray in the recent Sony Open couldn’t help but wonder what was going through his mind in those last few games of the tennis match.

Ferrer, arguably the 5th best player in the world, is a model of consistency on the tennis court. His speed, accuracy and heart make him a force to be reckoned with against any opponent – his inability to beat the Big Four (Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray) in title matches notwithstanding.

In the finals of the Sony Open, Ferrer crushed a lackluster Murray in the 1st set, 6-2. Murray found his stride in time to win the 2nd set, 6-4. Ferrer took a 6-5 lead in the 3rd set and had a golden opportunity to win it all. In fact, he had a break and match point, only to falter. Finally, in the tiebreaker, Murray decisively put him away.

blogchokingphoto3Many would call it a case of a classic “choke.” It was almost as if the reality suddenly sank in of being on the doorstep of beating one of the Big Four. We’ll never know, of course, what he really was thinking and feeling at those moments. But a subconscious fear of success could have been at work.

We’ve seen similar scenarios play out in so many close games and contests. One athlete or team thrives under pressure, while another wilts. Many of you might remember the New York Yankees leading the Boston Red Sox 3-0 in the 2004 AL Championship Series. Given that no Major League Baseball team has ever fallen to an opponent after leading 3-0 in a best-of-seven series, the Yankees were all but crowned as the AL champion. But Boston rallied in the final four games to win the series.

When a pattern of faltering in pressure situations occurs, the person or team develops a reputation of being a “choker.” The Buffalo Bills are a classic case, losing in four straight Super Bowl appearances (1991 to 1994). The most agonizing of those defeats came in 1991, when kicker Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds to save the Giants’ tenuous 20-19 lead.

So, what exactly happens physically and psychologically when someone chokes?
Sharon Misasi and David Kemler, both professors of exercise science at Southern, say it has to do with psychological pressure (stress) causing feelings of insecurity, muscle tension or autonomic arousal to occur. “When a performer perceives these affects occurring, it often leads to debilitating cognitive and/or motor outcomes,” they say.

“The performer’s scope of thinking diminishes due to the brain’s defenses that push the body into fight, flight and/or play dead mode. Worry and pressure cause the performer to forget or not access the motor programs that he or she has to solve the problem.”
Interestingly, it’s not just fear of failure that can lead to choking. Fear of success is a frequent culprit, as well.

“A performer may be worried (anxiety) about what will happen if they succeed at this level. They may be thinking, ‘What if I am successful? What will be expected of me the next time? Why do I deserve to be successful?’ This form of thinking and feeling can lead to our attention being directed to non-relevant cues, such as noises in the crowd, waving of the pompoms and trash talking. In the case of tennis, the individual performer focuses on the opposing player and not the tennis ball, or in football, the kicker focuses on the linemen or the football and not the uprights.”

What can be done to overcome a choking tendency?

Misasi and Kemler offer a few suggestions:

Practice game-like situations to prepare for the increased stress level that accompanies game day. These types of drills also help increase one’s self-confidence, which is an important step toward overcoming choking.
Keep expectations realistic and put the event in perspective. While predicting knockouts and the rounds that they would occur might have worked for Muhammad Ali, it could wreak havoc with the psychology of someone prone to choking.
In the days before the event, visualize yourself performing well. Visualization has proven to be effective psychological technique for many athletes.
Work with a sports psychologist. Coaches and athletes have varying degrees of knowledge and awareness of the phenomenon of choking. But a good sports psychologist is trained in the subject and can help an athlete overcome this obstacle.

Does anyone have any other tips to prevent choking?

With the extended winter weather this year, it’s hard to believe that the 2013 Major League Baseball season is upon us. Opening Day is scheduled for Sunday, but more important to Connecticut fans, the Red Sox and Yankees square off on Monday – the first of a three-game series.

When you think Yankees vs. Red Sox, what do you think of? New York vs. Boston. The Big Apple vs. Beantown. Manhattan Clam Chowder vs. New England Clam Chowder. Political Science vs. History.

Say what? You don’t get that last comparison?

You see, at Southern, the chairmen of two academic departments – political science and history – are avid baseball fans. Both are distinguished academicians in their respective fields, and when they are not teaching, researching, writing and administrating, they can often be seen following their favorite team. The two have been friends and colleagues for years. Art Paulson, who leads the Political Science Department, is a dyed-in-the-wool Yankees fan. Troy Paddock, who is in charge of the History Department, has been a Red Sox fan since he was 10 years old.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInterestingly, both agree that it will be challenging for their respective teams to win the American League East this year. Both agree that it will be a very competitive fight for the division title and that Tampa Bay looms as the team to beat.

But that doesn’t stop either from talking about why they think their team will finish higher in the standings than their arch rival. Each has given their 5 top reasons why that will be the case.

Here they are:

Troy Paddock’s 5 Reasons why the Red Sox Will Beat the Yankees in 2013:

  1. Bobby Valentine is not the manager of the Red Sox. He cost the Red Sox at least 5 or 6 games last year by leaving pitchers in too long. John Farrell knows this team from his time as a pitching coach and the players like him. Enjoying coming into work matters, even when you are playing a game.
  2. Injuries. The Red Sox had a tremendous number of injuries last year. Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis, Will Middlebooks, Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester and David Ortiz all spent significant time on the DL (as did others). If the starting lineup remains relatively healthy, they should be in better shape than last year.
  3. The pitching – both starting and relief — looks to be better. Buchholz and John Lackey have both looked healthy in spring training; Lester looks to be returning to the form that made him one of the best left-handed pitchers in baseball a couple of years ago.
  4. This Red Sox team is deeper than past teams. There are several players who can make the trip up from Pawtucket to help this team. Jackie Bradley Jr. has caught everyone’s eye, but Ryan Lavarnway, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa and Brock Holt have shown they step in as needed, too.
  5. The Yankees look weak. The decision to become fiscally responsible seems to have been ill-timed. With Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira all starting on the DL and CC Sabathia starting to show some signs of wearing down, the Yankees look like they might be in trouble. That’s too bad. Mariano Rivera deserves better in his final season.

Art Paulson’s 5 Reasons why the Yankees Will Beat the Red Sox in 2013:

  1. The Yankees have become the more experienced team. They have Jeter, Granderson, Sabathia, A-Rod, Robinson Cano, Teixeira, Pettitte and Youkilis. The Red Sox have good young talent, but it won’t collectively be as ready as it needs to be.
  2. New York has the better starting pitching. Not by much, but better. Sabathia is stronger than any of the Boston pitchers and Hiroki Kuroda is a pretty solid #2. He may also be better than any Bosox pitcher.
  3. The Yankees have Mariano Rivera and the Red Sox don’t. If Rivera can return to form after last year’s injury, he gives the Yankees a far stronger bullpen than the Red Sox. If for some reason he can’t – and I think he will – then the bullpen will be a close call.
  4. Stronger position-by-position.  If the Yanks can recover from their injuries, we have to give them the edge. Jeter is Jeter, and Cano is the best athlete on either team. Ellsbury is pretty good, but he’s the best the Red Sox have.
  5. The Yankees are the Yankees. The Red Sox are the Red Sox. Enough said.

Play ball!

Check out additional analysis from Art Paulson and Troy Paddock on the 2013 baseball season.