Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory

The title of this post is a funny, sad and often true statement made when an individual or team inexplicably chokes away what seemed like certain victory.  It eloquently describes the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who lost the Grey Cup Sunday evening with 12 minutes of terrible football after 48 minutes of dominating brilliance.  After executing one of the most impressive touchdown drives with 12 minutes to go, they followed that up with an interception and a two and out on conservative run plays designed to run out the clock.  Running late in the game is a common strategy in football with a common result: tears in your beer.

The Riders also used the common defensive strategy when faced with a lead to protect.  After three perfectly played defensive quarters where the Alouettes scored 10 points, the Riders decided that they had better play a prevent defense to ensure the Als didn’t score any touchdowns on big passing plays.  The result was as predictable as the offense; the Als finally got their offense going and scored 18 points in the fourth quarter on their way to victory.

Choke jobs can be witnessed on the gridiron on any given Sunday.  Just last Sunday the Houston Texans, Arizona Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave away games.  Three weeks ago, New England famously gave away the game against Indianapolis, allowing two touchdowns in the dying minutes.  Last year’s Super Bowl champs, the Pittsburgh Steelers have given away 4 games in which they led heading into the fourth quarter.    It is amazing that even the teams who ‘know how to win’ will cough it up a little more than might be expected.

Choke jobs aren’t just limited to the game of football.  Don Cherry has famously said that a two goal lead is the most dangerous lead in hockey.  Why is that?  Shouldn’t teams be in great shape to win when they are up by two?  Yet time and time we see hockey teams up two goals in the third period end up losing.  My beloved Edmonton Oilers accomplished the feat against the San Jose Sharks on Friday.  Not only did they blow a two goal lead, they blew the lead a second time with a minute left while on the power play!  That my friends is tough to do. 

The story in hockey is the same as in football.  The team’s focus switches; from minimizing opponent’s opportunities to score and creating chances to score goals, to trying to prevent goals to avoid losing the game.   It is one part amazing and one part frustrating to see this occur night after night.  Turn on the tv right now and give it an hour or two and some team on some channel will blow a lead.

Collapsing under pressure also happens with painful regularity in individual sports.   It is impossible to try to even count the number of golfers with leads who falter down the stretch.  Jean Van de Velde at the 1999 British Open and Phil Mickelson at the 2006 US Open are two of the most famous in recent memory.  Canadian hero Mike Weir’s record is approximately 0 wins in 12 attempts when leading a golf tournament after 54 holes.   Anyone who has ever played golf has found themselves on the 14th tee a three or four shots better than they had ever played and then went bogey, bogey, double bogey to get the score back to something a little more comfortable.   Likewise, all golfers have thought ‘Don’t hit it in the water, don’t hit it in the water’, which inevitably led to the next shot skipping into the lake.

And choke jobs aren’t just reserved for sports.   A chip leader in a home poker tournament always seems to give back his winnings.  A productive stretch of work vanishes the second you consciously realize how productive you have been.  A near perfect song of drumming on Rock Band goes up in smoke as soon as you try to avoid missing any notes.

So what causes a choke to happen?    Why does it always seem to backfire when the focus changes to ‘trying not to lose’?  Why is it so tough to get into and stay in that zone which allows constant productivity and consistent successful results? 

In short, it is all between the ears.  Ironically, failure arises out of a misplaced focus on the desired outcome of winning or success.  To consciously or unconsciously think about the outcome instead of the process will often have a negative impact on the outcome.  It sounds silly and it sounds too simple, but a second read of the examples above reveals teams and individuals who started thinking about the result and lost. 

The Mike Weir example really sticks out as a case in point.  Here is a terrific player and terrific guy who time and time again plays himself into contention to win.  He is good enough to win as is evidenced by his 8 career PGA Tour victories, including the 2003 Masters, yet he always figures out a way to lose when he sleeps on the 54 hole lead.  All 8 of his victories occurred when he was trailing the final round and charged to the lead.  Quite simply, he won when he played without fear and played with a focus on hitting quality shots that would produce opportunities to make birdies.  He lost when he focused on getting around the course without making mistakes.   

 It is not a simple switch that can be flicked on or off either.  Many times the choke occurs early enough that a team or player can recover and win, but it rarely happens.  Weir may turn his focus to making three birdies to get back the lead but those birdies have already flown the coop.  He is still focused on the result, albeit a good result.  Having a positive attitude is not enough to obtain positive results but it certainly helps.  A team that is sure it will lose will certainly do enough to fulfill that prophecy. 

So what is the key to success and victory?  A simple yet true view is that success comes from not focusing on the desired result, be it victory, productivity or some other goal.  Huh?  Ok, a team or individual must always be mindful of the result they aim to achieve but the result is merely a marker in the distance.  The result is point Z and we are at point A.  It is the painful obsession with the process of getting from point A to point Z and the endless enjoyment of the journey that will translate to success.  And success is more likely to come to those with the perspective that success is not life or death.  It is the process that is important, not the results that count.   Follow the process consistently and the results will come.  They might not come every time, but they will come more often then not.

Poker is a great example of the ‘focus on the process’ being the key to success.  For those who have read a few poker books or watched poker on tv, they know that a common theme is ‘the mathematically correct play’.  Essentially, a player needs to predict the odds that they will win the hand and compare that to how much money they might expect to win or risk losing.  Based on that computation there is a mathematically correct play: bet, raise or fold.  The key to success in poker is to make the correct play and detach oneself from the result.  A 10-8 off-suit might have won the pot had a bet been placed, but 9 times out of 10 the hand would lose.  Thus the correct play is to fold 10-8 off-suit almost every time.  The key to winning money in poker is to play hands correctly, not worry about winning money. 

Looking back at the Riders game, they were so successful for 48 minutes because on defense they focused on taking away Anthony Calvillo’s primary read and make him hold onto the ball longer than he would like.  On offense, the focus was on executing specific plays that would keep Montreal’s defense off balance and move the ball down the field.  For 48 minutes they slowly and methodically made their way from point A to point T.  At that point, human nature took over and the focus switched to point Z and the fear of not getting there.

The most frustrating part of all of this is the examples of teams that seemingly understand this philosophy yet continue to choke away games.  New England’s gag job against Indianapolis was only about their second or third gifting of a game in the past 5-7 years.  A team will focus on the process and have success one day, yet have failure the next time out.  Human nature, which is to say the way individuals are wired to think, simply conspires against success.  It takes a tremendous amount of hard work and focus to consistently take care of the details.   It probably is not realistic for anyone not named Tiger Woods to produce the same quality effort every single day.  Tiger is 14-1 when leading a major after 54 holes which is absolutely astonishing and is a testament to his hard work and focus on the process.

The only thing an individual can do is remain focused on the process, enjoy the competition and separate themself from the result.  If they lose and they lose because they choked, they simply must try to understand what caused the choke to occur and adjust the process to hopefully eliminate that particular kind of choke in the future. 

A final thought is the importance of setting goals and identifying the desired results.  Individuals who have vague dreams in place of specific goals tend to never get much past point C or D on their way to point Z.   Look at those who are successful and their success is almost surely to result from having a vision of what they wish to achieve followed by a long and sustained period of working diligently towards their goals, enjoying every minute along the way.   Those are the teams that hoist the Stanley Cup or Super Bowl trophy at the end of the year and those are the individuals lifting the British Open and Wimbledon trophies every summer.

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2 Comments

Filed under Edmonton Oilers, Golf, Hockey

2 responses to “Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory

  1. Thanks for the positive feedback Will!

  2. Will

    Superb article Jonathan. As a budding sports psychologist, I really enjoyed your take on the phenomenon experienced worldwide in all competitive sport: choking. Keep up the great work!

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