What causes choking in sports?

One of the most famous chokes of all time -- Bill Buckner's fielding error against the Mets in the 1986 World Series
It’s a truly terrible feeling when you walk onto the field or court thinking that you’re going to choke. I’ve been there, and so has a large majority of us who have played sports regularly.

But why does it happen?

I was brought to this discussion topic by Heather Brinkmann, a young lady who lives in Chicago that I met on my Tornado Hunt trip. After she watched her White Sox lose a tough one to the Nationals on Friday night, she asked me why her Chicago teams always seem to choke.

I’ll spare the Chicago sports fans who read this blog any more pain by mentioning specific teams in the Second City that tend to choke … you’re welcome.

But is there a gene in us that causes choking in the heat of the moment, and if so, how can we neutralize it?

I’ve been there — in tennis, specifically. I still believe that one of the hardest things to do in sports is to hit a great serve when your back is against the wall in a tennis match. You can practice it a million times, but so many things have to go right when it’s time to execute, and missing any of those steps by even a small amount leads to a miss.

I never could figure out how to excel in that moment, and it was so maddening that I basically quit the sport altogether. That’s an individual sport, though — is it possible for the choking bug to latch on to a franchise and never let go, no matter how many players come through the doors to play for them?

I believe it is possible, and it can be brought on by multiple, extended failures of a franchise over the course of time. Look at Florida State Baseball: whether it’s in the Super Regional or College World Series, something goes wrong every year when the pressure sets in, and it’s usually memorable for all the wrong reasons. They have made so many trips to Omaha, but have never won a national title. Every year, it’s an annual tradition in Tallahassee that the noose gets tight around the neck of the program because of the reminders from fans and the media that the team is still 0-for-forever when it comes to winning it all.

A lot to ask of college kids to handle, don’t you think?

It’s the same story for many teams in pro sports. Sure, the Cubs are maybe the most famous example, but any team with a long championship drought and a city that is obsessed with them will hear it. Whenever that happens, the likelihood of a “choke job” gets higher.

If you think about it, so many things have to go right for a team to win a title that choking is just something that’s going to happen on the highest levels of athletic play. It just really stinks when it’s you that chokes.

Maybe it is possible that history causes players on certain teams to choke more, but I think it’s just human nature to remember the failures more than we remember the successes. I think all of my teams are built on the foundation of choking as well, but I doubt they are any more susceptible to it than your team.

Either way, it really, really, really sucks when it’s you.