Monday, December 27, 2010

The Choke

When I'm not playing flyball, I'm often at the gun range practicing my shooting. I love shooting the way I love flyball -- I dig the noise, the adrenaline rush, the training, the equipment, and the people I get to hang out with. Putting a bullet into the "X" zone of a target feels like nailing a perfect pass during a big flyball race. You want to just pump your arm in the air and say "YESSSS!" (but I try not to do that when I'm holding a loaded gun).

Last week, I went to a pistol qualification test for the shooting club I just joined. They are safety fanatics there (obviously a good thing) and require all members to pass a shooting accuracy test before they are allowed onto the range unsupervised. The qualification test is a little tricky, because you walk into the range cold (literally -- it's freezing in there), you've never seen the range before, and you have a Range Safety Officer supervising your every move while you count out 20 rounds onto the table and shoot 5 rounds at a time at a target. There are nine other people lined up next to you shooting at the same time. You have to shoot five rounds into the target at 5, 10, 15 and 20 yards (1 yard = 3 feet), and you have to hit 20 out of 20. If you miss, you don't qualify. (Then they require you to attend several hours of remedial training before allowing you to try again next month.)

I normally go shooting every week or two, and I also put in some time specifically to practice for the qualification, so I felt pretty confident going into the test. But when test time rolled around, it was still nervewracking to be standing at the line under pressure like that. It didn't help that we had to sit through an hour and a half PowerPoint presentation before the actual test, where they repeatedly told us not to worry or be nervous about the test. 

I ended up passing the test and qualifying (whew!), but I noticed a clear difference in the shot pattern on my qualification target versus my practice targets. On the practice targets (see the photo), most of my bullets were hitting in the center rings or above the center of the bullseye. On the qualification target, almost everything was to the left of center. That's because I have a "flinch" when I'm uptight -- meaning my hand anticipates the recoil of the gun and jerks down a little bit just as I'm pulling the trigger. Which is a disaster when it comes to accuracy. I flinch all the time with my 9mm gun (much bigger recoil) but hardly ever with my .22, which is precisely why I shot the test with my .22. So I was disappointed that I couldn't control the .22 better during the test.

What does all this have to do with flyball? I'm getting to it, really.

When you're all amped up in the flyball lane, and the race really matters to you -- like when the division championship is on the line, or you're racing against your biggest rival -- and the pressure is on, it's all too easy to flinch and get an early pass. You choke. It happens in pretty much every sport (golf, basketball, gymnastics, soccer, etc.) as well as in music recitals, academics (exams, SATs), and business (giving a presentation to your colleagues or a big client). Choking really sucks in flyball, since it's a team sport and everybody is counting on you.

In her book Choke, psychologist Sian Beilock defines choking under pressure as "poor performance that occurs in response to the perceived stress of the situation." This is different from being under-trained or inexperienced. It's about performing "worse than expected given what you are capable of doing, and worse than you have done in the past." Choking is about letting the pressure of the situation derail you.

Some flyball teams are notorious for choking when the stakes are high, while others are envied for their focused, consistent performances. What makes some teams/individuals buckle under pressure while others rise to the occasion?

Putting too much pressure on yourself
Several years ago, I was on a team that was in the running for the regional championship. It all came down to our placement in the final regional tournament of the year (doesn't it always??). And one shall-remain-nameless teammate choked -- they had 13 early passes during the tournament. 13. I can see 2 or 3 early passes over the course of the weekend (especially since we didn't practice much and our lineups varied from tournament to tournament), but 13 times, really? Needless to say, we lost the regionals.

Since this person was a decent passer when the regionals weren't on the line, it seemed like a classic case of choking under pressure. They were probably pushing themselves too hard to be perfect, or they were too self-conscious about being under the microscope with everybody watching. We (the rest of the team) probably didn't help the situation because we were mad (but in general we were a pretty laid back team and forgiving of errors, so I don't think we contributed much to their stress for first 6 or 7 bad passes, anyway. ;))

Beilock says that when people worry about their performance or about what others think of them, it often leads them to overthink their movements, causing "paralysis by analysis." People who are highly self-conscious are most likely to choke. Beilock says, "Just as thinking about how and where we place our feet as we rush down the stairs may result in a fall, attending too much to activities that normally operate outside conscious awareness can lead to choking."

Beilock says Nike's "Just Do It" is a good mantra to live by. She recommends distracting yourself beforehand as a way to avoid overthinking, and suggests listening to music, singing to yourself, or counting backwards by threes. (You can sing or talk to yourself all you want in flyball and nobody will notice, thanks to the barking dogs.)

During the activity, one way to distract yourself from your movements and just go with the flow is to use "focus cues." Beilock tells the story of a golfer who used the song title "Edelweiss" from The Sound of Music to correspond to his swing. He said "Ed" when he initiated his back swing, "el" at the top of his back swing, and "weiss" when he made contact with the ball.

This is similar to what I was taught at shooting camp to control my flinch. The instructor told me to say "peanut butter" (drawn out very slowly, peaaaaaaaaanutbuttttttttterrrrrrrrrr) as I was pulling the trigger. When I remember to do this, it really helps.

For flyball, we could go with the old standby "Ready...set...go" and make the words correspond to specific points of the release. For instance you could say "Ready" when the dog in front of you has been released, "set" when he is turning on the box, and "go" when you see his face with the ball in his mouth.

Putting too much pressure on your teammates
Many years ago, I was on a team where the captain took her flyball very seriously. Before every important race, she would hold a little pow-wow as we were going out into the lanes and she would tell us, "Whatever you do -- DON'T F*** UP. No bad passes." Ruh roh! That's like me telling you right now, "Don't think about a grapefruit." 

Inevitably, somebody would have an early pass. And she would scream at them.

I'm not a psychologist, but I'm thinking it would be a lot more effective if you kept a positive focus and said something fun like, "Let's kick some ass!" or "Who wants to run fast?" right before the race. And if somebody has a bad pass, just give them a break and let it go (unless they bad pass, say, 13 times in a weekend). They're probably beating themselves up inside already, anyway.

Beilock says pretty much the same thing in Choke: "Focusing on the negative or on what you might lose if you don't succeed is one of the worst things an athlete can do. Excessive negative self-talk really hurts your performance."

Reducing the gap between practice and competition
In Choke, Beilock says that practicing under pressure can go a long way towards preparing you for the stress of competition. "Even practicing under mild levels of stress can prevent you from choking when high levels of stress come around," she says. "Simulating low levels of stress helps prevent cracking under increased pressure, because people who practice this way learn to stay calm, cool and collected in the face of whatever comes their way."

I'll tie this back to my shooting stuff. Last year, when I first started shooting, I only went to the range with my boyfriend and I was very self-conscious about letting anybody else see me shoot. (I was afraid I'd do something really stupid, like drop the gun on the floor.) This year, I really started pushing myself outside my comfort zone. In September, I went to a shooting camp for three days, which meant I had to train in front of 25 other people. I also entered a couple of "Steel Challenge" shooting matches, where I was timed and had to shoot a course of fire in front of a bunch of other competitors and spectators. The first time I competed in anything, my hands were shaking so badly that I could hardly load the bullets into the magazine. That has gotten a lot better as I've gotten more experience. So by the time I got to last week's qualification, I was already desensitized to shooting in front of other people. 

A friend of mine (let's call him Pete P. Ok, it's my dad. This is what you get, Dad, for reading my flyball blog and telling me I shouldn't get another puppy) failed the same qualification test a few months earlier when he took it, and he's been shooting 45 years longer than I have. He's also a very accurate shooter. BUT. He doesn't shoot in competitions and he doesn't practice as often as I do. So when he stepped up to the line to take that qualification test, he was feeling the pressure a lot more than I was. 

If the only time you pass a dog is at a tournament, then when the race/division/region is on the line, you are probably going to be stressed out. You need to practice passing at flyball practice. And you should have somebody standing there at the line calling your passes, and better yet you should have a videotape back-up of it, so you can see for yourself what your passes looked like. If you're having trouble getting it right, you might want to videotape the dog you're passing into as he's turning on the box or taking that first jump back so that you can look for that one movement or body position that really stands out to you, that you can use as a cue to let your own dog go.

Also, if the only time you're passing competitively is when the race is important, you won't be as prepared as if you pass tightly EVERY RACE. I know that there are times you want to take it easy and get the easy win/points (like if you're seeded two seconds faster than your opponent), so of course be reasonable about it, but putting a little pressure on yourself and working on your passing every time will pay off when the stakes are high. 

Other practical tips:
  • Stay focused on your dog (and the dog you're passing into) during the race, versus worrying about what the other team is doing. That's what the pass caller/coach is for -- if there's a flag or something, they can let you know. 
  • If you find yourself getting early passes, MOVE BACK. If you keep getting them, MOVE BACK MORE. This seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised.
  • You might also want to try a different release point. If the dog in front of you has an inconsistent box turn, stop trying to pass him when he's on the box. Move up a few feet and wait until he's taken a step or two off the box, or is coming over the first jump. I know it seems like your dog won't have as much room to build up speed if you move up, but you've got to find a consistent release point. 
  • Ask somebody who is really good at it to call your passes, or videotape them so you can see what you're doing. You can't pass well without good information.
  • Develop a routine for how you line your dog up, and stick with it. I always use my dog's front feet as a guide, but others like to use the dog's back feet, or even their own knees if they're kneeling and using their lap as a launch pad. 

Does anybody else out there have anti-choke techniques (or just passing tips in general) they'd like to share?


Kate said...

Anti-choke technique: Don't talk crap to the other team, even in jest. It'll screw you up every time!!!! :)

Stephanie said...

Totally agree with Kate :-) Also keep in mind your dogs might be super amped too (like if they have been crated in a van for 24+ hours traveling to a big event). Maybe start the weekend by backing up a few feet from where you would normally be to see what kind of pass you get. It is easier and safer to move up to correct a late pass than it is to move back to fix an early pass. Not to mention at a big event it can be good to get a clean race under your belt first thing, and tighten up from there.

Anonymous said...

I think you hit the biggies: have a routine that puts you "in the zone", pay attention to what the dogs are doing, and never back off.

When you back off you lose focus, and you mess up after breaking out, racing a bye, or a pickup team, slower team, etc. And that's worse!


Anonymous said...

Pay very close attention not only to how your dog runs, but how the dog you are passing runs. That means watching split times so you get a feel for whether or not the dogs slow down or speed up in later heats. Watch how the dog you're passing runs to the box and back from the box so you can judge if he/she's running faster or more slowly on any individual heat, and adjust your pass if necessary.

Happily Evfur After

Kristie Pope said...

I always joke with Cindy, who loves to hang on to her dog for another second after she says "go", which is most definitely a form of the "choke". Outside of the lanes I tell her "go" and open my hands simultaneously, and we practice together. Sometimes I catch myself dragging my hand down my dog's sides when I think, "crap, that's going to be early" and then the pass caller gives me 10 fingers or the ever humiliating "I can't stretch my arms any farther apart" signal.

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