Choke therapy: the sports stars who blew their big chance
Steve Blass says he doesn't know whether to be flattered or not. But in this case the answer is fairly obvious: not. I have just asked him what it is like to have a condition named after him. In America, "Steve Blass Disease" is part of the baseball lexicon. It refers to talented baseball players who inexplicably and permanently lose their ability to throw the ball. He has another go at the question. "People ask me if I get angry with that name and I say it's not my favourite thing, but I understand the interest."
Blass, who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was one of the most feared pitchers in major league baseball – gifted, accurate and mighty strong. He made his debut in 1964 and terrified batters for the next eight years. Then something very strange happened. He lost the ability to throw the ball when it mattered. It didn't happen overnight, but over a course of weeks. First, he threw less well, then even less well, and before long he found he couldn't throw at all. In practice he was fine, but come the big match, or any match for that matter, he was petrified. It was the most extreme form of choking. Whereas sportsmen and women tend to tighten up over a point or a penalty, or in an important match, he did so for the rest of his career.
Britain is no stranger to the choke. Reading the newspapers, or overhearing pub conversations, you might well imagine it's a national pastime. The England football team? Ach, we'll crack up when it comes to penalties. Murray at Wimbledon? Wait till it comes to the crunch. The Olympics? More tears from Paula Radcliffe. Of course, this is an unfair generalisation. All those cited have performed at the highest level, and Britain has produced any number of champions. Yet it's undoubtedly true that in a summer in which so many will be playing for the highest stakes, many of the great sporting hopes, from whatever country, will buckle under the pressure.
Not surprisingly, sportspeople don't like the word choking. Some prefer to say they lost their rhythm, others that they played too aggressively or were outplayed. And there may be some truth in their analysis. But certain catastrophic chokes are indisputable. There's Jimmy White, who lost six snooker world championship finals and failed to pot a simple black to secure victory against Stephen Hendry in 1994; Jana Novotna, 4-1 up in the final set against Steffi Graf, double-faulting her way to defeat and weeping on the shoulder of the Duchess of Kent in 1993; French golfer Jean Van de Velde who could have made a double bogey in the British Open at the 18th in 1999 and still won – but failed. The picture of Van de Velde paddling knee-deep in Barry Burn, trying to hit his ball out of the water, is one of sport's most comic and desperate images.
Then there's Graeme Hick. Hick was going to be the redemption of the England cricket team. He scored runs in county cricket like nobody else. Born in what was then Rhodesia, he had to wait seven years to qualify for England, and when he finally, did he blew it. For any number of reasons, he flopped at Test level – poor management (dropped every other game), cruel captaincy (Mike Atherton once declared with him on 98 not out, complaining he was scoring too slowly), crazy expectations (ours), nerves (his), poor technique. The bottom line, though, was he choked.
A few years ago he told me one of the hardest things he has ever done was admit to his (relative) failure. His sports psychologist said that he had to share it with somebody close to him. He chose his best friend, and built up to the gut-wrenching confession. He took a deep breath and told his friend, who wasn't in the least interested and continued with their previous conversation.
That's the thing, says former British table tennis No 1 Matthew Syed – as a sportsman you can't help but define yourself by the sport. And when you fail at that you become a failure. Syed, now an award-winning journalist, went to the Sydney Olympics in 2000 in the form of his life. This was his big chance to bring home a medal. "I remember reflecting on the sacrifices I'd made to be in a position where I could have the dream scenario of really..." He trails off – the humiliation is still raw. "... of progressing a long way. And when I went on, from the very first shot I played, I knew there was a psychological catastrophe unfolding at the worst possible moment."
Everything he had learned, practised, processed and automated over the years disappeared. "It's like you've reverted to being a beginner again. You don't think about how you're moving your right knee and right elbow or wrist when you hit a forehand slice when you're a professional table tennis player. And suddenly I'm thinking about it, and as you try harder and harder you get worse and worse. You can see it when someone is choking; they become very stilted, the integration of all the moving parts of the body becomes decoupled and it just looks pretty hideous."
Before he knew it, he had been annihilated. "It wasn't a loss of form," he says, "it was major psychological meltdown."
Did he ever recover as a player? Well, he says, he developed coping mechanisms and strategies: "But if I'm brutally honest, I don't think I was ever quite as psychologically robust again."
He talks about how the experience changed him. "It made me deeply curious about the hidden mechanism that delivers success, and made me want to deconstruct the psychology of it – how changes in the central nervous system enable you to time the ball well or to perceive the movement of an opponent. All that was triggered by what happened in Sydney." He explored this brilliantly in his book Bounce, where he dismantled the theory that great achievement, sporting or otherwise, is about natural talent.
Syed believes choking affects most of us at one time or another – whether it's at a job interview, on a date, in an exam, or simply when we're on public display. "When you walk normally, you never think about how you're moving your body. But when you walk in front of lots of people, say to pick up your graduation certificate, you are paranoid about falling over and suddenly you're thinking about how you move your feet and it feels incredibly awkward. You feel like a caricature of somebody walking. That's kind of what happened to me at the ."
Most days, he says, he hears from young sports people who tell him how cathartic it has been to read about his choking experience, and how helpful the advice. He reads me an email he's just received from an aspiring athlete, telling Syed he's given him renewed hope. And what about established sports professionals? No, he says, that's still taboo, the ultimate admission of failure.
Just look at the language that is used around the subject. "If people can nail a penalty or hit an ace, they are brave or courageous," Syed says. "So there is a moral overtone to the description. Therefore those who can't do it, particularly in a dramatic way, those who choke, lack courage, lack bravery." Syed, a quiet, measured man, raises his voice slightly. "I don't think it has anything to do with morality. It's a great moral virtue if you're willing to run into a burning building to save a child, not whether you can nail an ace at match-point down. Sportsmen think of it as the ultimate indictment if you can't hold it together under pressure, so they do find the label of somebody who chokes, or even worse being a serial choker, extraordinarily difficult to handle."
And what about him? "It was very hard to come to terms with. The Olympic Games in Sydney was unquestionably the biggest competition of my career, so if somebody said to me you choked in Sydney and therefore you're a bit of a choker, I'd say fair enough."
He tells me he has just returned from a holiday in Spain, where he had a horrible deja vu. "I played the coach of the local club, and one of the other coaches came along to watch and I immediately double-faulted. I said to myself, 'For crying out loud, you're playing in Majorca, there are only two people in the world watching you, it's only fun.' I did get a grip of myself, I'm glad to say."
Forty years on, Blass still can't explain what happened to him. There was no injury, no psychological trauma, no obvious fear. In fact, he says, he was the dressing room joker, the one who calmed everybody else down. Coaches tried to exercise the demons out of him, psychologists tried to talk the demons out of him – all to no avail.
"I just locked up. I wish I could explain it, but I don't know. That caused a tremendous amount of frustration." It's a typical understatement from Blass, who is 70 and a respected baseball commentator. A second later, he chooses the word anguish, which is more like it. It was so painful that it's taken him until now to write about the experience in his memoir, A Pirate For Life.
The thing is, he says, he didn't want to seem like a whinger. "There were people around me who had much larger issues, so for me to whine and cry about not throwing strikes, I thought that was not correct and not respectful at all," he says. So he tried to smile and make people laugh. "But when I did make a joke, I felt fraudulent because I wasn't feeling funny."
He wanted to get rid of the bathroom mirror because he hated what he saw in it. He couldn't talk to his wife, Karen, and was unaware of how she was suffering alongside him. Years later, she told him that watching his career unravel was the toughest thing she ever witnessed.
At the ball park, in the car, at the bar, he raged, drank too much, broke things. At home he tried to behave normally to protect the family, though that was impossible because his meltdown was all over the papers. One day his son David, then 10, came home and told Blass he'd had a fight at school. "He'd been defending my honour against a boy who told him that his father thought I was a bum," he writes in his memoir. "I had a talk with my boys. I told them that the kids who had you come home and get an autograph from me are not going to be the same. I explained to them that this is how life works."
But on the whole fans and team-mates were supportive. In a way, this made it even worse. "As a major league professional athlete, pity is the worst thing. When I was out in front of 30,000 people, I'd been so good that the people of Pittsburgh didn't want to boo me, so they just sat there and the silence was deafening."
Does he think his inability to throw was stress-related? "No. It got to be very stressful." A number of theories were bandied around – the sudden death of a team-mate, injuring a batter – but none made sense to him. Blass could throw fine in practice, but come the match he froze. In 1974, he told his team-mates he was quitting the Pirates. He joined a minor league team and still couldn't throw. One day he drank a bottle of wine before going out to play. "I threw strikes for about 45 minutes and I said, 'Well, maybe that's the answer.'" He did it only once? "Yes, because I said, 'Do I want to be a good pitcher who's also an alcoholic?' and I said no." He pauses. "Maybe if I'd been younger I would have made that deal with myself."
In 1975, Blass announced his retirement. "I'd been a baseball player all my life, and I loved everything about the game. The next two or three years were terribly sad because I knew physically I was able to pitch for several years, but the moment I made that decision it was an absolute relief."
He struggled, working as a salesman, bouncing around doing different jobs, trying to remake his life. "My confidence was beat up pretty bad. I was at the top of my game, it was taken away, and I didn't know why. I could have been very resentful." He gave himself a stern talking to. "I said hopefully I've got 40, 50 more years of my life, I could sit around and sulk but it's not going to be beneficial for me and it's going to be horrific for my family. So I pulled up my big-boy pants and I said all right, let's go, you've got a lot of living to do."
In the 1980s, Blass re-established himself as a baseball commentator. He is by no means the only baseball pitcher to have lost the knack – hence Steve Blass Disease. Does he consider it a form of choking? "It was beyond that. It may have been in the big picture, but I don't think so. Choking is giving in to pressure. I was lost."
Sports psychiatrist Steve Peters hates the term choking. We meet at the Manchester velodrome where he is Team Sky's psychiatrist and head of medicine, and is helping Britain's cyclists prepare for the Olympics. He has worked across many sports and recently helped snooker player Ronnie O'Sullivan. He says he doesn't really believe high-level athletes choke, though I sense what he really believes is that it's not a helpful term.
Peters says if we have to use the word choke, let's at least accept that it's an umbrella term for a number of things – athletes might go into freeze mode (runners sometimes stop at 250 metres in a 400m race because that's when it gets painful); flight mode where they sabotage their chances (in 2006, O'Sullivan walked out of a match with Stephen Hendry when he was 4-1 down but there was plenty to play for); they might over-think or under-think; they might become self-conscious because they are playing badly or playing well, or because they suddenly become aware of the crowd or the significance of the moment. He mentions Novotna's collapse at Wimbledon. "It was unbelievable. Unbelievable. You did really think this poor woman, she's moved from aspects of the brain that automatically flow, to a part of the brain that is actively thinking and trying to work things out – how to put a good service in. Well, you're back to somebody who almost doesn't know how to serve."
Peters is a high-level sportsman himself. He didn't start sprinting seriously till he was 40, then won world titles at masters levels, and astonishingly was called into the Olympics training squad at 44 as an "up and coming" athlete, having finished the 200m in 21.9 seconds. His experience makes it easier for him to understand what goes on inside the heads of champion athletes and his job is to find the reason why they behave in the way they do, treating the cause, not only the symptom.
He has broken down the sporting brain into a simplistic model of "chimp" and "human". When it is working well, it's a computer. When problems start, either the chimp (emotion) or the human (reason) take over. "When I go to compete, my chimp starts kicking off. It's all about me managing what my chimp throws at me, like, 'I can't lose this, I mustn't look stupid, I'm not fit enough', it's the classic stuff I'll get when I work with elite athletes. So I can relate to that and the intensity of the feelings. If the human wakes up you become too rational, analytical, lose spontaneity and you can choke."
As I leave, he stresses that he thinks I'm on the wrong track. "On the whole, people don't choke. It's very uncommon, and you've got to define choking."
Ronnie O'Sullivan is at home in Essex watching the final of the French Open between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. "Great players don't choke. Djokovic should have got beaten by [Jo-Wilfried] Tsonga, but he whupped the geeza. I love the Djok. I'm a Djok man. I think if he beats Nadal here, Nadal will crumble. It'll do him." I tell him I've spoken to Peters and O'Sullivan tells me that he wouldn't have won the world championship last month without his help. I also tell him that he doesn't think choking is a problem in sport and O'Sullivan says he couldn't disagree more. "Thank God for 'em." What does he mean? "Well, without chokers I wouldn't have won so many trophies."
Can he tell when it is happening? "Oh yeah. You can smell it. There's only two players I've played who don't choke, and that's John Higgins and Stephen Hendry."
How would he define choking? "It's when you can't get over the winning line. They just keep falling short, and you know they're going to fall short. They're good at falling short." O'Sullivan thinks people are more prone to suffer in certain sports. "Golf can be a tough one. On the green, putting. Snooker is a tough one. Anything with a still ball, it's like a penalty – if you're playing football and a cross comes in and you hit the ball, anything can happen, but when you've got a penalty, that's different. Boomf!"
I ask him if he's ever choked. No, he says, in 2006 his problem was simply not wanting to be there. "I was just so unhappy. I thought: it's only a poxy game of snooker, I just want to get out of here. But I probably wouldn't do the same thing now because I've been taught by Steve to put those emotions to the side."
He's still thinking about whether he has ever choked. Actually, he says, as a kid he hated it when his dad came to watch him. "He expected me to pot every ball. It was a pressure I could have done without. I started winning only when he stopped coming to watch me. I can still hear his voice in the background now: 'Well, why'd you play that shot, why did you miss that one?' I'm four times world champion, I shouldn't really be having that dialogue in my head."
Professionally, he says, one time does come to mind. "I played Hendry and tried to protect a lead. I thought, I'm in front here, and I missed one ball and never saw another and he beat me. That was the biggest lesson I ever learned. I was never a choker, never a bottler, never one to defend a lead, but I thought on that occasion maybe I could play conservative. Afterwards, I thought never again am I going to go out like that. The best players in the world are the aggressive ones – it makes opponents choke when they feel they've got you breathing down their neck."
Djokovic is serving to stay in the match. The most nerveless player in today's tennis double-faults and is done for. "He just missed," Ronnie says. "Great champions don't choke. I don't think the moment got to him. I think he just made a mistake." Isn't that a choke? "Nah. If Tim Henman had done it, yeah." And Andy Murray? "Yeah, he's a bit of a choker, isn't he?"
Just after failing to win the Open in 1999, Jean Van de Velde said he'd still be talking about it in 10 years' time. Thirteen years have passed, and I'm asking him for his memories of that 18th hole.
"It was a fantastic day and fantastic week. I was leading, the crowd were ecstatic, it was something special. You're talking about the Open championship, it's not any tournament. I'd done incredibly well. I think I won the record for the fewest putts in the history of the Open."
By the time he got to the 18th, he says he was a little tired. "You don't get to sleep much on the Saturday night, not that you're worried, but the tension, the adrenaline keeps you awake. Some guys don't sleep at all."
On the 18th, he smashed the ball into the grandstand with his second shot, it hit a piece of metal and ricocheted into the rough. From there he smacked the ball into the water, took a penalty drop shot and plopped it into the bunker, before taking two more shots to finish with a triple bogey. This resulted in a play-off, which he lost. In Steve Peters' parlance, Van de Velde's chimp got the better of him – he played emotionally and irrationally.
As we talk, all I can see is that image of him wading deeper and deeper into the water. I tell him I wanted to hug him when I saw him in the water, and he bristles. "Hug me? What d'you mean?"
Well, you looked lost. He bristles. "No, I totally disagree with you. I don't look lost at all. Look at the pictures, I am smiling, looking at the situation."
Was there an element of panic? "Element of panic, where?" He talks about the freakish bad luck of the shot that hit the grandstand. Yes, I say, but you still had four shots left to win with. "Look, I play golf, aggressively – and at the end of the day I'm only accountable to myself. That's the bottom line."
People talk about his 18th hole as one of the great sporting meltdowns. Is that fair? "A meltdown? Pppfff. You can always debate words, it's a democracy, but to think I 'melted down', that makes me laugh." If he had his time over again, would he play the hole the same way? "Knowing myself, I'm pretty sure I would play it again the same way."
In a way, it's unfair that this is the one thing he's remembered for. After all, he was ranked only 152nd in the world at the time and it was a miracle that he got so close to winning. Did that final hole at Carnoustie affect his career? "No, I went on to have my best year ever in 2000. I played around 20 tournaments in America and finished 60th." But Van de Velde never again got so close to winning a major.
Back in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, America's eponymous choker has good news for me. He reckons he has finally defeated Steve Blass Disease. "About five years ago I worked with a psychologist and he said, 'We're not going to try to figure out why, we're just going to fix it.' His approach was replacing negatives with positives and now I can pitch in these older gentlemen's fun leagues. What I missed most was the joy of holding a baseball and throwing it. Now I have that joy back again." And how good is he compared with the other 70-year-olds? He laughs – and it really is a joyous laugh. "Simon, I blow their ass away." •