Not All Chokes Are Created Equal

Scott Ford trains at the Clinch Academy in Frederick, MD, is the author of Financial Jiu-Jitsu:  A Fighter’s Guide to Conquering Your Finances, and is the CEO of Cornerstone Wealth Management Group in Hagerstown, MD.

As a friend told me, three things happen immediately after you mentally freeze, choke, and wreck your motorcycle:

• You take a quick inventory and make sure all body parts are intact,

• You surreptitiously glance around to see if anyone was watching, and

• You start thinking of excuses you’ll give for why you wrecked.

The first time he wrecked a motorcycle, there were no excuses.  What happened?  “I had only been riding for a couple months,” he told me, “and I choked.  I freaked out.  I froze.  I – shoot, pick any embarrassing verb and it applies.  I was going way too fast up a twisty mountain road and came on a hairpin turn, mentally froze, hit the brazes but did nothing else, and ran off the road into the side of the mountain.

So what really happened?  He didn’t choke because he lacked courage.  He was young and his bravery needle shot past “Bold” and “Reckless” to peg out at “Could you conceivably be any more insane?”

No, he choked because he had not done the one thing that can ensure you never choke again:

Turn the abnormal into the normal and the unusual into usual.

No, I didn’t just go all Zen on you.  Here’s why.

We don’t choke because we lack courage.  We don’t choke because we lack an innate coolness under fire or because we’re flawed or somehow mad of “softer stuff.”

We choke when we face an unusual, uncomfortable, confrontational, or scary situation, we don’t know what to do, and we freeze:

• We shrink backwards instead of stepping forward to seize an opportunity

• We say the wrong thing without thinking

• We do what we’ve always done in a confrontation instead of what we know we should do

In the midst of choking we experience fear, but fear is just a symptom.  The fear we feel doesn’t cause us to choke; we choke because you don’t know what to do.

We haven’t turned “Oh no!” into “Okay, been there, done that, here’s what I’ll do.”

Never choking again isn’t based on developing greater courage or composure.  Never choking again starts from the opposite end:  When you know what to do and have done something similar before, courage becomes automatic.  Composure is a given.  Coolness under fire is natural.

That’s why bravery is like a Band-Aid for choking.  Want to cure the real problem?  Throw out the bravery Band-Aids.

Experience is Everything

The key to not choking is to gain experience.  But not just any experience – the kind of experience that builds confidence.  We’ll use a BJJ example, but keep in mind you can apply the following process to almost any skill or situation.

  1. Build the basic skill.  Say your ground skills are rudimentary and you aren’t comfortable in the guard position.  Systematically improve your ability to control your opponent.  Don’t worry about offense yet; focus on control and defense.  Over time you’ll gain skill and confidence in the basics.
  2. Rework the basic skill.  In time you’ll develop habits that are more about comfort than skill.  For example, you may not “like” the open guard position, so you focus on gaining leverage while still keeping your legs hooked.  Comfort isn’t performance, though, so force yourself to work in the open guard position.  You’ll struggle at first, but over time you’ll gain confidence and skill.  (Remember, each setback is a step on the road to skill.)
  3. Practice for “What if?”  As you approach the upper limit of basic skill in a controlled setting, start thinking about the unexpected – and more importantly about what you’ll do in response.  What if your opponent slips a hold and gains the mount position?  How will you respond?  What if you go for an arm bar and lose leverage?  What next?  Create as many “What if?” scenarios and practice them.  And when you’re not on the mat…
  4. Visualize.  Lots of people get visualization wrong.  Visualizing what you will do is helpful – but only if you’ve done it before.  (Visualizing the perfect golf swing only helps when you’ve swung the club well before.)  Visualizing what you have done and focusing on getting every detail right helps you build a mental skill framework – and build confidence.  Then take visualization a step farther and…
  5. Create a mental solution pegboard.  Responding quickly is a skill that can be developed.  (That’s why military personnel, police, fire fighters, etc. train relentlessly.)  Thinking on your feet is easy when you’ve already done the thinking, so create a mental pegboard with little solution bags handing from it.  Dream up as many situations as possible and determine the best way to react.  The more solutions you develop, the more you can practice, the more you can visualize, the better prepared you are to respond quickly – and the less likely you are to choke.
  6. Benefit from mistakes.  It’s impossible to predict every possible outcome.  Mistakes are learning opportunities.  Figure out what you’ll do next time, practice, and add that solution to your mental pegboard.

Again, not choking has nothing to do with being brave or mentally tough.  The key is to develop your skills and experience.

Skills and experience develop bravery and mental toughness, not the other way around.  When you know what to do – and have done it before, on the mat and in your mind – you won’t choke.