Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Thou must not choke

Imagine the scene:

Sweaty hands, dry throat, shaking knees, body trembling, eyes dilated.
"Don't choke, don't choke, don't choke" you tell yourself. But it's too late, the world is watching and it's too late. You sink to your knees, with a lump in your throat.

No, not just Tulisa, but all of us, in a situation we have all been in at some point before. (Easy sex joke number one).


So, other than the opportunity to make a long-winded sex joke, I felt it would be good to discuss what "choking" is. I'm not going to quote psychologists or come up with my own theories. In fact, I haven't done any work at all, so if you didn't like that opening gambit, you'll hate this piece.

If you're reading this, you probably follow a sport or two and occasionally play. If you're reading this, you're probably useless at these sports as well. It's OK, between you and me, I'm not so good at sports myself, so you're amongst friends now, don't worry. However, every now and then, you'll be in a position where you aren't doing half-bad. You're actually winning at something. Yes, someone who knows Douglas Elder is winning at something. You continue to play, and you continue to excel, and you feel about as free as Marlon King, you know, without the rape thing. Anyway, you approach the winning line, you are destined for perpetual glory/gloating, after a performance you won't so much tell your grand kids about, but at least a few mates down the pub.

However, you suddenly tighten up. Something is wrong, and you're not the player you were. You're instantly as stiff as a priest at a One Direction gig (easy sex joke number two). While writing this, looking for the opportunity to empathise with you weak-minded chokers, I am taken back to a few dark moments from my otherwise illustrious sporting career.

Grainy, black and white, thunder and lightning memory one:
I was about eleven years old. Playing at that cathedral of sporting greatness (some park in Cheam), our intermediate (those not good enough to play in the "premier" division, even though I worked really hard that year) team had reached the semi-final of our cup competition. After a battling, gruelling, exhausting display, after a mammoth 50 minutes, our game reached the word that puts fear into the hearts of men all around the globe*. Penalties.

*Except Germans

Despite playing in regular sized goals, and my team-mates being about three feet tall, the quality of penalty-taking was pretty poor. Nevertheless, after four penalties each, the scores were tied. Me, being that bastion of mental strength, the "chosen one" at mind games, my soul and mind a giant, unbreachable fortress, volunteered to take the fifth penalty. I approached the penalty spot with a jaunty, pretty camp jog. My childhood didn't so much flash before my eyes, as I hadn't really achieved anything. Being one of the few Catholic schoolboys who hadn't been mercilessly, mentally scarred (easy sex joke number three) in the local area, I was free from the baggage of many of my colleagues. I stepped up confidently.

The ball didn't reach the goal, but at least it was technically on target. At least I didn't miss, therefore any fault aimed at me couldn't be directed towards my state-of-mind, more my underdeveloped legs, due to a combination of me not having reached puberty yet and the Achilles heel that holds me back to this day; my lack of lower body strength. Don't worry ladies, the rest of me is good.

Grainy, black and white, thunder and lightning memory two:
Fast forward seven years. I am now the spotty, nervous, gangly young man you know today. It is my back garden and I was on top of the world. In a competition I had excelled at frequently over the past few months, I was dominant once again. Ahhh yes, the Elder Cup, awarded to the best table-tennis players from all over my house, was in my grasp. I had made mincemeat of my brother over the previous twenty or so points and had deservedly given myself the chance to claim the greatest glory of my career. With seven match points, an inevitable victory was fast approaching. The only uncertainty was what my champions dinner would be; Chicken Kiev or Sausage and Mash. However, those memories from all those years ago came flooding back. I was choking. Point after point passed me by and suddenly the match was level. Moaning to my support team (my cat), I had to find a way back. But it was too late. From nowhere, I had been defeated and an eternity of mocking awaited me...until the next match in half an hour. Which I probably won.

So you see, it happens to the best of us. But I am just a normal man, having not had the jedi-esque mental training that today's top sportsmen go through. How do those at the very top so often fall apart?

If, unlike me, you really care about the answer to that question, go read a book or something. But it is strange how some of us are more susceptible to a "dose of the chokes" (copyright, Elder 2012) than others.

Example one:
Andy Murray.
Might be a bit harsh for one of the finest sporting exports our country has produced in years. A man of immense talent to go with his effervescent personality, he is liked all over the country (Scotland) he represents. He actually represents Great Britain, but it's not that kind of article, and I have no time for people who make crass generalisations about an entire country. Like the English. Murray has reached the semi-finals at each of the last five grand slams and at six of the last seven. Despite this, he has just one final and no victories do his name. Why is this? Well, people like to attribute this to a fragile mental state, but when you're the fourth best player in the world, maybe you'll finish fourth every now and again. Choking only really affects those who are superior enough to hold an advantage. As of yet, Murray does not have this luxury. But maybe one day he could become a bona-fide choker. (It is spelt "bona", so not sex joke number four).

Example two:
The South African Cricket team.
With cricket being quite a divisive sport, not all of you will appreciate this reference. But in cricket, when the going gets tough, the Saffers get going. Why? My assumption is that, the more you choke, the harder it is to stay calm. As you carry more and more baggage and more battle scars, it can become more and more difficult to set the record straight. Either that or "the crunch" makes a South African's stomach more upset than Luis Suarez on Martin Luther King day... allegedly. In the 1999 World Cup, they choked...twice. In 2003, they choked. And in 2011 they got beaten by a sub-standard New Zealand team. Talking of whom...

Example three:
The New Zealand Rugby Union team.
Erm, until last year. The Kiwi's more often than not approached World Cup's not just as favourites, but certainties. And yet, time and time again, they would find a way to throw away matches with more precision (and more legality) than Salman Butt. My limited knowledge of the sport that used to be football until they started using their hands and showering together means that I won't go on much further. Besides, I wouldn't want to elaborate on fifteen men showering together, but, in your private moments, feel free to do what you want.

Example four:
Arsenal 2004-2011.
I couldn't do a blog without having a pop at Arsenal, although their worrying (and hilarious) penchant for cocking up may well have run its course now (cue enough wood touching to rival a Rihanna video...sex joke number four). After their astonishing 2003-4 season where they went unbeaten (you may have heard about it), Arsenal have failed to win the league, despite many agonising, yet funny near-misses. In fact, they haven't won a trophy since that 2005 FA Cup Final, the result of which I STILL can't figure out. In 2008, 2010 and 2011, they fell apart. This year, that trend may be turning around, as Arsenal emerge from despair into the blissful daylight of averageness (by the way, thanks for Sunday). As it happens, the choking virus may well have spread to a nearby London borough, a bit like last year's riots. Tottenham, who have had very little success in besting Arsenal over the last few years, are now trying to out-Arsenal Arsenal and finish sixth, when third was a certainty.

So, there is the proof that we all suffer a choking from time time. Whether you're a finely tuned, perfectly honed individual like me, or run-of-the-mill journeymen like the New Zealand Rugby team, we are all fallible.  

And, like me, we should all smile and move on when it happens. I know I do. Bloody penalties.

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