We’ve all been there. Third and 9 at the opponent’s 40 yard-line and down by 6 points in the Super Bowl. You break open across the middle of the field just beyond the 1st-down marker. The quarterback finds you and delivers a perfect pass that you swear is carrying a vapor trail, and as you feel that oblong projectile slip through your clinched fingertips, you suddenly come to the realization that you have just choked. You lose. You let everyone down, your fans, your team, your city, your family. You lost the Super Bowl. Way to go, you fumbling klutz.
What? You’ve never done that? Oh that’s right, you’re usually on the other side watching these overpaid muscle-freaks . And oh boy, do we love watching them fail. What we often fail to realize, though, is that we choke just as much if not way more than those guys we make fun of while constantly rewinding our DVR to catch the exact instant when that athlete’s hopes and dreams gloriously explode right before our eyes.
Let’s take just a few moments to examine the science surrounding the choke. If there is a key difference between professional athletes and us normal dirtbags, it is practice. While we spend hours every day photoshopping cats into iconic action sequences from 1980s films, athletes work tirelessly programming their cerebellum, the area of the brain most commonly associated with motor skills, to control their bodies without having to think about it.
Why do they do that? Simple, because the prefrontal cortex is that tricky little bitch always looking to screw things up for you. While it is the area of the brain directly responsible for humans kicking ass in the evolutionary food chain, it kind of screws athletes when it matters the most. You see, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for our higher reasoning, that is, thinking.
So when you see Tiger Woods standing over a 14-foot putt that could clinch a PGA tournament, his main objective is to not think at all. This may sound a bit strange until you put yourself in that situation. What would you be thinking about? “Oh s**t, oh s**t, oh s**t, please sweet Jesus, don’t let me miss this, oh s**t.” “If I miss this putt, I’m pretty sure David Feherty is right behind me waiting to pummel me with his comically large field microphone.” “Boobs, boobs, boobs, boobs, man I love boobs.” Basically, you’d probably be combating a million random thoughts coursing through your spastic mind.
By fortifying their muscle memory, these athletes’ next course of action is to completely bypass everything going on in the prefrontal cortex. So, while Tiger pulls back his putter, his entire body is completely controlled by nothing but his cerebellum. The prefrontal cortex might be trying to visualize what that female commentator looks like naked, but the cerebellum blocks those dirty thoughts… at least until after the tournament.
So, you might be thinking to yourself, “Hey now, how does this apply to me? I don’t ever face the pressure-packed circumstances that professional athletes do. I don’t ever get the opportunity to choke.” Oh dear sir or madam, you do. Just take the scenario of traversing the tempest-riddled seas of bachelorhood in your 20s and 30s.
Sure, we may not be on national television attempting a physically and psychologically demanding task while roughly half are cheering us on and the others have an unhealthy passion to see us fail. What we do have to attempt is the even more daunting task of engaging in conversation with people of the opposite sex, and the same brain challenges exist as with professional athletes.
Of course, you probably haven’t found yourself in the scenario described up there at the beginning of this article, but I’m sure you’ve been in a bar before. If not, then I’m surprised you’ve read this thing for as long as you have. Anyway, you’re at a bar; you see an attractive girl across the bar, and you immediately decide that you have to talk to her in hopes that she will eventually let you see her naked. Sure, you have a lifetime of practice with, you know, talking, but nothing in the world can stop your prefrontal cortex from going into hyperdrive and randomly emanating crazy thoughts in your brain.
Or is there? Of course there is: booze. YAY!
Now remember those areas of the brain most consequential in choking? Try and guess what alcohol does to those same spots. That’s right, the sweet inebriating nectar causes a drastic decrease in prefrontal brain function. That’s right, that scotch and soda will take that nagging, over-thinking bastard out back and shut it the hell up.
Unbound by the chains of crippling sobriety, you navigate the jungle of token bar folk and stride up to the lady. Even if your prefrontal cortex is vehemently throwing out every reason you shouldn’t attempt this risky maneuver, that second glass of Dewar’s has successfully gagged that nerdy sonovabitch. You are Tiger Woods. You have the skills to seal the deal. You have the technology.
You’re talking to her. You’re hitting it off. Way to go, you. The lights begin to flicker on as the slightly agitated bartender nearing the end of a 7-hour shift signals last call. You know what you have to do: close. Of course, while your prefrontal lobe lay bloodied and unconscious in the corner of your mind, the acting interim commander of your brain, the temporal lobe, takes matters into its hands. Wait, the temporal lobe, you say? The area of the brain responsible for speech, sensory perception, and sex drive? Wait, you’ve now set down your third empty glass of scotch and realize you can hardly formulate a sentence anymore. You gather yourself and ask her if she’d like to watch your freshly pirated version of The Dark Knight Rises.
Or so you think, as this sentence leaves your mouth: “Hey! Hey. Listen. Listen. Hey… Are you going to let me see you naked, or what?”
After you have successfully wiped away the French martini recently thrown in your face, you realize you have choked. You have let everyone down, your friends, your bar, your pubescent self. But fear not, even Tiger misses that putt every now and then, my friend.
Joseph is a washed-up athlete who will most likely become fatter and angrier over time. In an attempt to keep his demons at bay, Joseph writes humorous articles for the internet. Follow his rambling nonsense on Twitter.