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The Science of Choking, Figure Skating Style

With Worlds underway in Moscow this week I was especially captivated reading the chapter “The Art of Failure” in Malcom Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw. In this article, originally published in the New Yorker in 2000, Gladwell investigates the difference between choking and panicking.

According to Gladwell (and the scientists he interviews) panic occurs when someone stops thinking. This often happens to young skaters who, in the midst of their first few competitions, completely forget their program choreography. They panic, their brains freeze and they can’t remember the next steps. On the other hand, choking occurs when you think too much. If a skater under stress loses trust in the instinctual, mechanical timing that usually allows him to land a triple loop in his sleep and instead starts thinking through the process and slowing down the jump, he chokes.

If I’ve got this right, the two phenomena look something like this:

When Brian Joubert landed a perfect triple flip in his short program earlier this week but failed to add a much-needed triple toe to meet the short-program technical requirement, he was panicking. He couldn’t think on his feet quickly enough to shuffle elements around and pick up the precious points he desperately needed after a flub on his quad.

When Cynthia Phaneuf popped the triple lutz in her short program to a double, she choked. Instead of relying on years of training and muscle memory, she over-thinks a jump she’s landed a thousand times. Her busy brain gets in the way of the innate jump timing her body knows so well. Choking is a crisis of confidence.

I know the feeling of choking all too well. As a skater, turning doubles into singles in competition was my nemesis. I wonder, if I had understood the psychology of choking when I was a skater would it have made a difference to some of my own lackluster performances?

If this topic interests you, you can read Gladwell’s article here.

One Response to “The Science of Choking, Figure Skating Style”

  1. Orson Paige Says:

    Nice Article.You have described very well the difference between choking and panicking.it should be really helpful for all skater lover.Good Work….
    Skating dress

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