Choking: LeBrons Unnatural Response
By Mia Jackson on June 12, 2011
Mia M. Jackson • Sideline Pass • Up close and sporty!
“Under the glare of competition, basketball players cannot find the basket and golfers cannot find the pin.” The Art of Failure, Malcolm Gladwell
The Shark. King James. These two prominent figures in the sports with raw, incredible talent have more in common than bold nicknames. With over 30 top 10 finishes in PGA Majors, golfer Greg Norman was dubbed The Shark because he stalked the course with a commanding, intimidating presence. He is also considered by some to be a top choker, a title many are ready to bestow upon young LeBron James. In his article “The Art of Failure “ Malcolm Gladwell discusses how, in the 1996 Masters Tournament, Norman led for three full days, and was three shots ahead of his closest competitor at the 9th hole in the final round. What happened over the final nine holes could only be described as choking – ESPN ranks it as the top 3rd choking performance in the past 25 years. The Shark lost control and ultimately surrendered the tournament to Nick Faldo by his horrific play - bogeys and double-bogeys along the back 9. “How can you not win?” was the question posed to Norman in the post-tourney press conference that probably summed it all up.
Gladwell outlines the distinction between choking and panic. “Panicking is conventional failure, of the sort we tacitly understand. … But choking makes little intuitive sense.” In essence we panic because we have no idea of the answer or recognize inexperience. We choke because we know exactly what to do, but suddenly second guess that knowing.
Based on Gladwell’s research, he highlights Norman’s loss as an example of true choking, of how an athlete loses command and no longer trusts their natural, innate ability. Some would say that this is what’s happening right now to LeBron James, the “King.” Like the Shark, James played beautifully throughout the NBA Playoffs – that is until he reached the finals against a scrappy Dallas Mavericks team. At times, when he’s standing there on the court you can almost see the wheels turning in his head. “Should I pass?” “What if I take this shot?” We can’t hear those thoughts, but it’s clear that they’re impeding his second nature basketball playing skills.
“Choking is about thinking too much….Choking is about loss of instinct.”
This LeBron is not the same man we saw work in tandem with teammates to take down the Celtics and own the series against league MVP Derrick Rose and his Bulls. This is a tentative, hesitant, confused would-be champion who’s just thinking too much, listening too much. Also, according to Gladwell’s study, choking happens when the participant/player allows the audience or crowd’s stereotypes to creep into the psyche and alter what would otherwise be as simple as putting on socks. Now it’s as if LeBron is wondering which is right or left, forgetting that there’s no difference.
“Choking is a central part of the drama of athletic competition, because the spectators have to be there--and the ability to overcome the pressure of the spectators is part of what it means to be a champion.” Malcolm Gladwell
Tonight, we’ll witness and I wonder which LeBron shows up in Miami. Will he overthink his place on the court or just let his true game take over? We’ll see if he can set aside the heavy weight of the world’s expectations and just play ball.
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