Ask the Coach: "Why Do I Choke at Game Time?"
A young hooper wants to translate training to winning, so Duke basketball’s Kara Lawson helps him score some perspective.
“Ask the Coach” is an advice column to help you keep your mind in the game.
I play high school basketball and slay in practice. 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 paralyzed with fear of failure that my muscles don’t remember how to shoot a ball — especially free throws, which I always nail in practice. 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 learned about this came from, of all people, my middle school soccer 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 your numbers. If the right ones are trending upward, that’s growth (and more chances to touch perfection).
Personal stats, though, can give you only so much perspective. You need to look at the whole team. My favorite example of this is when NBA coach Steve Kerr showed his team’s stat sheet to one of his top players during a game. The player was unhappy with his shooting, but Kerr showed him that his plus-minus number (how the team was performing when he was on the court) was outrageously good. It’s never just about how you’re shooting. It’s about everything you contribute.
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 practice to games? Welcome to life! I don’t mean to be flippant. It’s just extremely hard to translate a skill from low-pressure practice 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 practiced my shooting last week!” My response is, “OK, you need to practice 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 Chia Pets.
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 driveway or at a park near your house. Just find a way to create your perfect practice space. You’ll be amazed at how much better you get over one month. Then two months. Then three.
It may feel repetitive, and it should. Repetition is what makes it possible for you to execute no matter what else is going on. It helps you develop concentration and the ability to quiet the negative voices in your head so you can focus on performing. Do you know how many jump shots I’ve taken from each spot on the floor over the years? Neither do I, because the number is countless. Repetition is what athletes are built on. We do the same things over and over and over again.
Repetition is what makes it possible for you to execute….
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 roster 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