If playing and watching sports often results in our forgetting about “real life,” and the drama of sports is often regarded as a metaphor for “real life,” then how much can we adapt from sports success and failure to improving our daily lives?

A lot, I hope. When an athlete or team is way behind and comes back to win, what can we learn from that to help us also upgrade our own performance…in sport as well as possibly going from rags to riches? Or personal setback to major achievement?

And just as a player way ahead often blows his/her lead, what can we glean from that choking that will stop us from doing the same in our own athletic contests and also our personal quests? So we don’t go from castle to hovel, from happy marriage to divorce?

There is this sports announcer thing about momentum, more confidence, change in mood, reviving, rallying. What is it all about? What happens on a psychological level that obviously affects the physical level and then the score and final result?

I have seen recently a few sports situations that make me think about these changes for the better and worse (when one comes from way behind, someone else blows their big lead, right?).

So let’s explore this subject in a series of posts. First some Wikipedia definitions: A “choke” is a failure to perform in sport due to anxiety. This is a form of panic attack in which the athlete may literally experience breathing difficulty or otherwise lose physical composure. Successful champions do not choke, but are “clutch” players — rising to the occasion under pressure rather than collapsing.

In sports, clutch refers to competent and/or superior play during high pressure situations. Most often it is a successful action taken under high pressure during a game, usually at the end, that may result in a significant change on the game’s result. In the mainstream, performance in important situations is often attributed to some wealth or deficit of character that causes a particular outcome…

So I was watching a college squash match, and the Trinity player was behind one game to two. (A winner needs three games out of five.) He’d just been crushed in the third game 2-11. The score in the fourth game was 6-10, so it only takes one more point to 11 for Trinity to lose this individual match to Dartmouth. Although the odds of a Trinity comeback are incredibly remote, I have some faint intuition that this game is not yet over. But I don’t say anything, don’t want to jinx the outcome. I’m all for Trinity.

The score inches up to 7-10, 8-10. Now the fans sense defeat is not inevitable. The players must realize it a bit as well. 9-10, we are almost there. What is going on? Is the Trinity player gaining confidence? He must have more hope now than when it was 6-10. What about his opponent? From a sure or very likely win, enormous optimism, maybe even cockiness, he has to be worried, more fearful, tightening up on his shots.

Suddenly it is 10-10, the unimaginable has happened. It’s a new game. More tension, excitement, many minutes of back and forth. In fact there are six match points total, until Trinity’s Parth Sharma wins 16-14. What a turnaround! Now Trinity has the momentum, the greater enthusiasm; his opponent has to be debilitated and let down. Sharma wins the fifth game easily 11-3, and that individual match goes to Trinity.

How did that happen? How can we make that happen? In sports. Or off the court. People do rise to riches. They do get the girl. They do zoom from doom to boom?

Last year at the Wimbledon final, Andy Roddick wins the first set, goes to a tie break in the second set, and takes a huge 5-1 lead. (It takes 7 to win, but you need at least two more than your opponent.) So Roddick needs just two more points, and he will lead Federer 2-0, and be right close to the three out of five sets needed for victory.

Amazingly, astonishingly, in spite of this enormous lead and four set points, Federer comes from behind as Roddick chokes. Just like the squash comeback described above, we underdog-Roddick fans don’t worry as his lead dwindles to 5-2, 5-3, but then we get that inkling about the comeback, the possibility of a momentum change, until I believe it gets to 5-5. In the end the score is 6-8 Federer. Roddick has been defeated. One reporter says he looks shell shocked and depressed in the next set. He then loses the third set in another tie break, wins the fourth set, but then loses the match in the fifth set by the astonishing score in games of 14-16!

This has to be the comeback of comebacks. How does it happen? I don’t yet have access to Federer. So I have been asking some squash players what they did or thought to revive themselves when they were down.

Yesterday I spoke to Antonio Salas after his amazing squash victory against Yale three days ago. It was his first big match for Trinity, and he’d lost the first two games. In the third, he was down 2-7, then 3-9 (it takes 11 to win, but it has to be by two points minimum), and then he said he knew he had to play perfectly. Too much depended on it. He literally threw himself at the ball, went that extra bit, made that supreme effort, and came back agonizing point by point until he won 13-11. With all that momentum, he took the next two games 11-9 and 11-6.

That brought the team scores to two matches for Trinity and one for Yale instead of the other way around. First team to win five individual matches out of nine wins the overall competition, and Trinity has the longest winning streak in any college sport—210 consecutive matches.

Even the story in the New Haven paper acknowledged the psychological importance of that comeback. Trinity’s coach, Paul Assaiante, said, “We’re down match point at No. 6, and if we lose this match, now we’re down 2-1 after the first shift and then fear comes into the house.”
 He was concerned about that momentum thing, wasn’t he?

Two weeks ago at the Brisbane Tennis Tournament final, where two sets out of three equals victory, Andy Roddick almost blew it again. He won the first set, was ahead 4-0 in the second, then 5-1…so only one more game would do it. But as one British reporter wrote, he got the “wobbles.” He lost the next five games. Unbelievable. He was down 5-6, in danger of losing the set, but finally claimed the sixth game, forcing another tie-breaker.

Now get this: he roars to a 6-1 lead, needing just one more point. But he chokes big time—he loses the next six points. He is now down 6-7. He is in danger a second time of losing the set. However he wins the next three points, the set and the match.

Clearly he had the ability to finish off his opponent. But the pressure beat him down…or up. The other player, Radek Stepanek, was so worn out that he double faulted to lose the match.

Dynamic tales, but what is going on? Let me know what you think. I will give you some more of the answers I am hearing in future posts.