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Time To Cancel "Choking"

By Dan Bauer, 09/06/23, 12:45AM CDT


I am generally opposed to this trendy “cancel culture” that is more focused on optics than actual meaningful change.  I am not convinced that eliminating Aunt Jemima’s picture from her syrup or Lady Antebellum dropping half their name has sparked a paradigm shift in racism. I am, however, in favor of eliminating “choking” from the athletic dictionary. 

It unjustly calls attention to the loser and minimizes the Herculean effort of the winner.

Having lived most of my coaching career in the shadow of the favorites I know the elite jubilation of pulling off such an upset.  I understand the paramount performance your team must produce to engineer this improbable win.  When over-confidence and comfort meet desperate hunger and courage the paper trail of statistics become meaningless. 

Underestimating your opponent in all walks of life can be fatal.  When the fallibility of cockiness replaces the reliability of confidence the mighty are ripe to fall.  It is a tight rope that great teams must effectively walk, but are susceptible to any missteps.  Sooner or later this overconfidence will clash with reality and a correction will occur.  Too much of just about anything, including wins, causes us to overestimate our abilities and look past our opponents.  It often starts before the game begins by taking an opponent for granted.  Falling behind or being unable to “put the game away” can lead to frustration and the activation of too many players trying to do too much on their own.  Add in the final ingredient of finger pointing and the recipe for a juicy upset is complete.

Respect all opponents, fear none.

The Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Bruins are the current poster boys for the “choke”.  Both finished with their respective league’s best records.  The Bruins set the NHL record with sixty-five wins and the Bucks finished with an impressive fifty-eight.  The glorified bake sale known as the regular season is the fund raiser that allows the playoff season to exist.  Teams are acutely aware that excellence during this marathon earns you one extra home game in exchange for the “favorite” label that motivates a piranha-like appetite for upsets by the underdogs.

Both teams were humbled by first round playoff exits.  The Bucks went quietly in five games to the 8th seeded Miami Heat and the Bruins in a hard fought seven games to the Florida Panthers who snuck into the playoffs on the last day of the season.  The Bucks and Bruin’s fan bases fist-bumped their way through a magical regular season, then leaped from the bandwagon to declare their respective journeys a failure.  Falling short of the championship goal has now rendered the process and the journey as meaningless.  Logically, it is insipid to argue that finishing with more wins than anyone else in your league is a failed season, yet hardcore fans are convinced it should be labeled that way. 

Like climbing Mount Everest, most of us have no idea what it takes to win a championship.

Buck’s fans are blessed to have a generational talent in Giannis Antetokounmpo who is also a brilliant sports philosopher.  After the Bucks loss to Miami, he lectured us all, “There's no failure in sports. There are good days, bad days, some days you are able to be successful, some days you are not, some days it is your turn, some days it's not. That's what sports is about. You don't always win.

While the media held both the Bucks and Bruins in a choke hold, the Panthers and Heat have moved closer and closer toward an unlikely championship.  The impressive run of these two underdogs hardly makes those first round victories look like “chokes” anymore.  The injustice here is that attributing these unexpected exits to “choking” completely dismisses the monumental efforts of the Heat led by Jimmy Butler and the play of Panthers Brady Tkachuk and Sergei Bobrovsky.  The beginning and the end of great teams, or dynasties, are often undetectable in real time.  We won’t know whether any of these four are at such a juncture until next season and beyond.

The only thing that can make one of these early exits worse is a panicked front office.  After winning three Stanley Cups in six years, the Blackhawks lost their first round series in 2016 and 2017.  General Manager Stan Bowman slammed his panic button and began dismantling his modern-day dynasty.  His overreaction to a four-game sweep by the Nashville Predators voided a fifty-win season and sent Chicago into a six year and counting sentence of mediocrity.   As the Hawks’ reign ended prematurely, the Predators went to the Cup finals before losing to Pittsburgh in six games.  Packer fans who constantly beg for the team to blow it up and start over, look south and be careful what you wish for.

The “choke” is a matter of perspective.  In 1980 I don’t remember hearing much about the Russians “choking” as we celebrated the “Miracle on Ice”.  But as we waved flags, the Russian faithful had their hands firmly attached to their throats.  Wearing the crown of overconfidence for a long period of time changes that mental perspective and tricks us into a false sense of well-being.  It continues to be an inescapable and harmful human trait that thousands of years of evolution has not yet weeded out. 

It is time to stop insulting those who executed a David vs Goliath effort to steal a victory or an entire series from a comfortable champion.  Charting a course through these dangerous waters and escaping with victory should be applauded and rewarded.  Let’s give credit where credit is due and recognize the achievement instead of chastising the failure.  The pundits who were quick to label the Bucks and Bruins as “chokers” should be choking on their own words.

Hats off to the Florida Panthers and the Miami Heat as they remind us just how powerful the human spirit can be when challenged to accomplish something no one thinks is possible.   

Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach.  You can contact him at