“You’re at a point where you’re just not in a good rhythm. You start aiming shots, you start thinking about plays too much. You start thinking about the game too much and instead of going out and reading and react and playing the game.”
--LeBron James, Miami Heat, after the Heat lost another close playoff game in the fourth quarter.
I have heard many people; friends and colleagues talk about LeBron James' struggles in these 2011 NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Many say he is shrinking from the spotlight. Others say he can't handle the pressure. Still others say he is unable to play well with his other star teammates in the spotlight: that, he is taking a backseat to his teammates. But, is it really that he is choking?
But how does a two-time NBA MVP, Olympic gold medal winner choke? How has a player who has been in the zone so often in the past, lose it? How can an 8-year veteran of the NBA seem so lost?
Right now, LeBron is aiming his shots and telegraphing his passes. So, he misses shots badly and makes sloppy passes that are easily intercepted. Offensively, he looks lost; as if he has forgotten how to play. Then when he transitions to defense, he is still thinking about being lost on offense and so he does not react quickly enough on the defensive end of the court.
He doesn't look like he is having fun. He often talks about the Miami Heat playing better under pressure and when desperate. That may be true because if you are desperate, you aren't thinking. Your instincts take over. Choking is about thinking too much.
Is LeBron choking?
I point you toward the definition of choking as discussed by Malcolm Gladwell and several others in recent years.
He says that from an intuitive standpoint, choking makes little sense. Experience seems to count for little in times of choking. Choking occurs when we lose our focus, our ability to be "in the zone". Choking occurs when we are too focused on what to do.
Choking is the paradoxical failure of working too hard and in too focused a manner. The more we try, the more we choke. When we choke we revert to the mode of explicit learning. We return to slow, methodical non-fluid movements. We go back to the mechanical, conscious method of re-learning. We get away for intuitive, quick processing and revert to the methodical.
Does LeBron look mechanical? Indeed, he does.
Is he panicking? Is he folding under pressure? No, I don't think so. Panicking involves a losing of one's bearings and orientation. It is about losing one's head and perspective. But it isn't choking. Choking is forgetting. Panicking is excessively getting caught up in the importance of the moment. It is emotional. Panicking is fear. Choking is excessive thinking.
This choke vs. panic distinction is useful if we look at the importance of learning and rehearsal. Getting in the zone is about using explicit learning and making the learning implicit. Staying in the zone is about ensuring that the learning remains implicit.
A structured learning approach to peak performance and installing some type of a stress-and-anxiety management system provides the vehicle that improves our ability to use learning to get in the zone and stay in the zone. We become immune from panic and choking.
In reality, choking is a very particular form of failure. When we learn, we learn sequences or patterns of activity, movement, and behaviors. As we rehearse these movements we get faster and smoother. This early learning is called "explicit learning", or learning that is done within one's awareness. Later, that learning, through repetition becomes automatic. Explicit learning becomes "implicit learning", or learning outside of our awareness. Explicit learning is deliberate and mechanical, while implicit learning is what takes over when we can behave in an automatic, fluid fashion, without thinking. In sports and athletics, for example, this implicit learning involves the development of "touch" and accuracy in a throw or a swing.
Under extreme stress and pressure, the explicit learning system can take over. This is the process of choking. In these instances of choking, athletes lose their touch, their fluidity; they are out of the zone. The athlete begins to be excessively deliberate and mechanical again, as they would if they were beginners. They revert to the explicit learning system.
How do you get out of that process? You just play and relax. You have fun. Feel the joy of the moment; as you did as a young player growing up. LeBron, I know that your every move is evaluated. So what?
LeBron: Quit thinking and just play.
Excerpts from the New York Times.com (June 8, 2011) and Failure: The Peak Performance Field Guide #2.