What Causes Elite Athletes to Choke?

ByABC News via via logo

Feb. 25, 2006— -- Friday night, Sasha Cohen was majestic in a no-pressure exhibition, but the picture the world will remember is her falling with the gold medal on the line.

With Cohen it has happened so many times before.

"How she could not know what she's facing and that everyone's saying, 'She choked every single time. Will she choke again?'" said USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan.

Cohen is in elite company. Michelle Kwan dominated figure skating for a decade with five world championships and nine national titles, but no Olympic Gold.

"When the athletes come to the Olympic Games, it is rarely about the muscles anymore," Brennan said. "It is all about the muscles between the ears."

If anyone knows how Cohen feels, it is the Buffalo Bills. In the 1990s they went to the Super Bowl four times and lost each time. Scott Norwood's 1991 failed field goal kick will forever be synonymous with "wide right."

"Typically the athlete will think too much about the implications of performance and what it means," said sports psychologist Dr. John Murray. "They tend to think too much. And the word choking reflects that, the idea of choking on thoughts."

Scott Hoch was consistently ranked among the top professional golfers. But he never captured a major championship. His closest call came at the 1989 Masters: He came within inches of victory, but missed. He has forever been known as "Hoch the choke."

Silver medalist Cohen says you can't try to please the world -- just yourself.

"I don't need to be validated by scores or marks or whatever," she said. "I know that when I skate, when I skate my very best, I am very happy."

But there is hope for the bastion of bridesmaids. Look no further than speed skater Dan Jansen, who battled falls and personal tragedy starting in 1984 -- three Olympics with no gold. He finally won in 1994.

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