In Case Of ‘Choking’


Peter K. Kaiser, MD

In sports, a ‘choke’ is the failure of an athlete or an athletic team to win a game or tournament when the player or team had been strongly favored to win or had squandered a large lead in the late stages of the event.


Over the past week, I watched my beloved Boston Bruins (I lived 12 years in Boston) choke in game six of the NHL’s Stanley Cup finals. The Bruins gave up two goals in 17 seconds to lose the Cup.

So this was a massive choke. The Bruins lost to the better team, a fact that William Mieler will happily point out as I wear a Chicago Blackhawks sweater at our next meeting together. (I lost the bet.)

This loss comes only a few days after I watched the San Antonio Spurs choke in game six of the NBA finals. Like the Bruins, they had their fifth championship essentially won when they found themselves up by five points with 24 seconds left. Then, they choked, missing free throws, layups, and block outs.

I am not a Spurs fan, but I am an ABtH fan (anybody but the Heat). To make matters worse, thanks to a masterful game seven (yes, I really wrote that), Lebron James can officially claim greatness after taking his “talents to South Beach.” We all “witnessed” that.

As an athlete, what makes someone rise to the occasion and play phenomenally when the pressure of the game is at its greatest it has always intrigued me. It’s the difference between Tony Parker missing a free throw to ice the game against the Boston Celtics’, I mean, the Miami Heats’ Ray Allen’s three-pointer to win the game. I loved getting the ball in water polo when the clock was running down and anchoring my swim team in relays. Others were happy to pass the ball.

In the operating room, I see the same thing in the fellows I train. When a case goes bad, some immediately switch into go mode to fix the problem; others freeze, unable to decide what to do next. Why do some fold under pressure and others rise?

For the Bruins it came down to 76 seconds … or as Yogi Berra would have said, “They made too many wrong mistakes.”