Quick! Stop Thinking! --the psychology of choking

The New York Islanders lose a lot of games. Yeah... if youre reading this, then I am sure you already know that all too well. After all, its pretty tough to overlook a nine game losing streak and watching the team you love garner only 1 out of the last 18 points available to them.

There are plenty of Isles blogs and articles talking about this problem. Whats their problem? How can it be solved? Why dont they try harder? Why dont they care? Play with heart? Who needs to come up? Who should be sent down? Who needs to step up more? Those articles are great and I reading them myself... but Im not going there right now. Of course there are also panic-button reactionaries who, as a rule, need very little to push them into scathing rage regarding the teams ownership, General Manager, their old building, longterm cable deal, etc. A 9-game losing streak is more than adequate to fuel their rants. Dont get me wrong- this organization is FAR from perfect, plenty of the criticism is justified, and many of those articles have their place, as well. But I am not looking to go there, either. I am looking at this problem a bit differently. I am not analyzing plus minus, relative Corsi stats, who is holding back which line, which free agents refuse to play at NVMC, whether to blame the owner or GM, none of that. I think theres something that is overriding talent and motivation and will when it comes to the New York Islanders. I think there is far more to it than stats. I even think there is even more to it than talent. I think their own minds are working against them... and the more they try to rectify it, the worse things are getting...

I read an article last night in a quarterly magazine called "Discovery Presents The Brain." It is from the fall issue, I think it is still the most recent issue out there (but you cant always trust me on that, I tend to keep science magazines until I read every part of them.) In this magazine, there is an article called, "Quick! Stop Thinking!" by Carlin Flora. The article offers a brief view into a new book by Sian Beilock called Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Success and Failure at Work and at Play. As I was reading it, I started to see a strong and undeniable correlation of its ideas and the Islanders current situation. In fact, these idea can apply to a number of teams... but Ill stick with talking about the one I know best!

(Click here to see a readable JPG of the article... I highly recommend checking it out!)

The article is all about choking... the same kind of choking the New York Islanders (other than their 41yo goaltender and an oft-IR'ed Dman) are currently displaying night after night. According to the article, choking happens when a person allows anxious thoughts distract him or when a person conscious tries to control motor skills that are best left on autopilot. Choking is not just a poor performance, it is a suboptimal performance- a person doing far worse than he is actually capable of doing. And choking happens because of the persons own perceptions, and the pressure and stress that the person is putting on himself in the given situation.

The article points out studies in which the books author Sian Beilock studies these reactions. When Beilock asked golfers to think about where their elbow was during their golf swing, they tended to perform worse than usual. Why? If a person is doing an activity that requires a lot of mental horsepower (for our discussion, like playing hockey) and then on top of that they are worried about screwing up (or losing streaks or being sent to the minors or whatever) well then suddenly the person does not have the available brainpower they need to accomplish what they were worrying about in the first place. The more you worry, the worse you will do at your task.

This is what we are seeing right now with this team. I do not believe all the young players the Isles are counting on have suddenly "forgotten" how to score goals. IMO it is simply not reasonable. What I think IS reasonable is to consider that these players are putting pressure on themselves to the point of hindering their own mental (and therefore, athletic) abilities. To apply this to the Islanders, Rick DiPietro is so worried about letting in a goal and screwing up and getting another loss that he is actually preventing his own brain from simply- reacting- in which case he would be far more likely to make the save. Kyle Okposo last season missed what seemed like dozens of open nets because instead of just shooting, he was probably saying to himself as he skated over there, "I cant miss a shot like this again! WTFs wrong with me, this is the kind of goal you just CANT miss, I... oh...shit..."

I think it explains why some otherwise EXCELLENT scorers such as Jagr and Kovalchuk would sometimes do so poorly in the shootout. (God... Kovie in the SO last night... ugh...) During a game, you just shoot... and you score. In the shootout, youre standing out there... thinking... second guessing yourself... third guessing yourself... you are not just- playing the game.

The thing is, worrying is a vicious cycle. The more pressure that these players put on themselves and hinder their own playmaking and finishing abilities, the more they will feel they have to worry about. And the more you worry, the more your brain gets used to the process. You in effect become more of a worrier. Not good.

There are people who are less likely to choke... and studies show that its people who have been in high-stress situations more often who are better at dealing with them. That explains why the Isles best players right now are a 41yo goaltender and a 35yo defenseman. They have been through the losing streaks, the losing seasons, they have already realized that worrying about every move they make is not only not going to help, but it will hurt- significantly. A good example of this is Radek Martinek receiving the first fighting major of his entire career. That is probably not something he would have done if he had stopped to think about it and worry about the consequences. But he is just- acting- and- reacting- and he is one of few Islanders players who seem to be doing everything anyone would reasonably expect from him.

I ordered the book, and I honestly cannot wait to read it (yeah, yeah- nerd alert lol). I actually ordered two... because I will be sending one to the New York Islanders, along with a printout of the magazine article above. I will explain to them that it is not an insult, its actually a credit to the players on the team. I know they care. I know they are trying. I know they want to win so badly. They just need to stop worrying about it.

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