Ask the Coach: Why Do I Choke at Game Time?
A young hooper wants to translate training into winning, so Duke basketball's Kara Lawson helps him to score some perspective.
Ask the Coach is an advice column to help you keep your head in the game.
I play high-school basketball and slay in training. I sink nearly every shot, I'm quick on both ends of the floor and I love every second of it. But when it comes to playing in a game? I choke. It's like suddenly, I'm so paralysed with fear of failure that my muscles don't remember how to shoot a ball—especially during free throws, which I always nail in training. And it feels like my anxiety is getting worse with every game. I know I have it in me to be really good, but I don't know how to channel that when it really matters. Why is this happening to me, and what can I do about it?
Lacks Ability in Games
18-year-old basketball player
Firstly, I see you, LAG.
I thought I played terribly in so many games, but when I watched the tape, it wasn't that bad. I'm not dismissing how awful that can feel in the moment, but we tend to see our failures as much bigger than they really are.
One of the greatest lessons I ever learnt about this came from, of all people, my middle-school football coach. When I'd finish a game and feel frustrated by my playing, he'd say, "You're not going to have a perfect game. Your goal in a game is to touch perfection as many times as possible". In other words, you'll never be perfect—but you can have a perfect pass, a perfect shot or a perfect defensive play.
If I were you, I'd look for a reality check from someone you trust. Sit down with your coach and go over your stats to see how they match up with your perceptions. Most of the time when people talk about being off, they mean they're not making shots, but you need to look at all of your numbers. If the right ones are trending upwards, that's growth (and more chances to touch perfection).
You'll never be perfect—but you can have a perfect pass, a perfect shot or a perfect defensive play.
As for struggling to take something you do well in training into games? Welcome to life! I don't mean to be flippant. It's just extremely hard to translate a skill from low-pressure training into high-pressure live action. I've had players who want to be better shooters, so they work on it for a week, and when they still can't make that shot in a game, they're like, "But coach! I practised my shooting last week!" My response is, "OK, you need to practise for a couple of years. Then we can talk". A lot of young people have this distorted view of growth and how long it takes. We're not grass.
It's never just about how you're shooting. It's about everything you contribute.
To really grow, you need to do what I did as a player: Touch the ball and work on your skills every day. Every. Day. It could be in your back garden or at a park near your house. Just find a way to create your perfect training space. You'll be amazed at how much better you get over one month. Then two months. Then three.
Repetition is what makes it possible for you to perform …
Repetition is also what will get you over one of the biggest obstacles every athlete faces: a lack of confidence. It will allow you to trust that you can make this shot, this pass, this stop, because you’ve done it so many times before. If you dedicate yourself to repetition and draw on a real love of the game, I know you’re going to rise to the occasion in the moments that matter most.
Kara Lawson is the head women's basketball coach at Duke University. Previously an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics and a respected broadcast analyst, she was a standout player in the WNBA for 13 seasons, leading the Monarchs to a championship win, and a member of the Team USA line-up that won gold at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. As a dominant player at Tennessee, she led the Lady Vols to three NCAA Final Four appearances.
Illustration: Harrison Freeman