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Choke vs Clutch: Focus on the Right Thing at the Right Time

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When I was in the sixth grade, I had my first experience with choking. I was at a track meet watching the 4 x 100 meter relay. One team had an amazing start and quickly took the lead. They held a comfortable lead for the first three hundred-meters and seamlessly passed the baton onto their anchor leg. It looked like they had the race in the bag. About 50-meters left in the race, the lead runner made a fatal mistake. He turned his head around.

You might be able to guess what happened next. Two runners ended up passing him, and the favored team finished third. The lead runner started to tense up. It was as if the other runners were able to smell the fear in him. The lead runner was doing so well, but fell apart in a matter of seconds. By giving into his urge to turn around, he shifted his focus to the wrong things at the wrong time. Imagine some of the thoughts that might have been going through his head?

“I hope they don’t’ catch up”   

“How far ahead am I?”   

“Am I going to win?”

“I’m so close!”

“Oh no! They’re catching up!”   

“What’s everyone going to think if I lose?

Instead of focusing on finishing the race to the best of his ability, he was focusing on not losing. Here are some things that could be more helpful to focus on:

  • Running past the finish line
  • Proper running form (e.g., pumping arms, staying on toes, good stride)
  • Breath control
  • Taking one step at a time

In high pressure situations, there is often fine line between clutch and choke. Take for example, a Baron Nashor steal in LoL or an Aegis snatch in DoTA.

Pulling off such a stunt is amazing, and making a mistake can be bad, especially if your positioning is risky. Focus is extremely important to pull off these stunts. You need to be really focused at what you’re doing, and you need to be focused on the right things at the right time. Here’s a list of three areas of focus that can help you perform in high pressure situations.

Focus on Playing in the Moment

Highly successful NBA coach, Phil Jackson practices the warrior mantra:

“I have no future
I have no past
My goal is to make the present last
I am in the now”

Imagine you are 35-minutes into an intense game. Your team has been getting pounded fight after fight, but you know it’s not over yet. You truly believe that your team can come back if they do everything right from here on out. The past 34-minutes do not matter. At this point, you’re not thinking “we lost boys”, or “the enemy carry is too farmed”. You’re focused on making one play at a time to give your team the best chance at making a comeback.

You might be focused on:

  • Constantly checking the minimap
  • Making sure the map is warded
  • Being aware of your cooldown timers
  • Positioning well in case a fight breaks out
  • An opportunity to force an advantageous fight

You’re focusing on making the right decisions over and over again. When you see an opportunity to execute your gameplan, you will be ready.

Keep Calm and Focus!

Phil Jackson once shared that in a close game, he needs to check his heart rate. If it’s too high, he knows it’s going to affect his judgment. At this point, he finds a way to calm himself down. However, that doesn’t mean being completely relaxed. It means finding a way to lower your energy where you’re loose but still alert. Here are a few tips you can try to calm yourself down in these intense situations:

  • Take deep breaths. It’s important that your body (and brain) is getting enough oxygen.
  • Run a quick body scan. Look for areas of tightness, especially your neck and shoulders. Release areas of tension. (Taking deep breaths can also help here).
  • Use a mantra. The warrior mantra could be helpful here. Also experiment with some of your own and see what works for you.

Create a Focus Checklist

Come up with a list of scenarios where you are likely to find yourself at the crossroads of clutch and choke. Is it when you’re underfarmed? When you’re trying to go high ground? When your opponents are pushing? Next, create a list of the right things to focus on in these scenarios.

The purpose of this checklist is mental preparation. If you go into a match knowing exactly what to expect, you will likely perform well. You are less likely to come across surprises and be caught off guard. You already ran through these simulations. You’ve identified what these situations are and decided on a strategy to react. This can be a good starting point in building self-awareness finding out what works for you.  Give it a shot!

Happy Gaming!