Colorado Avalanche: Are They Choking During Games?


Well, Colorado Avalanche fans had to watch another game in which the team found ways to lose as they dropped a 4-3 decision to the San Jose Sharks. It would be funny if it weren’t so painful. The hockey gods are more than frowning on the team — at times, they appear to be spitting on the Avs.

At times like this, the accusations start flying. It’s all Patrick Roy’s fault because of many reasons — mainly his system must be whack and, you know, it’s always the coach’s fault.

It’s Matt Duchene’s fault because he’s only got a goal and two assists — the franchise player should be producing more.

It’s the defense’s fault because it’s the Colorado Avalanche defense. We all know Colorado Avalanche defense sucks.

It’s Semyon Varlamov’s fault because the goalie must serve as the last line of defense.

During the game there were bad calls from the referees, dives from opponents and occasional bonehead penalties from the Avalanche.

It’s probable that all of the above play a part in why the Colorado Avalanche have fallen to 3-7-1. The Avs New Age last year turned out to be a bust, and it’s looking like #TheStoryContinues means another bust.

But why? I get asked that all the time when I want to talk Avs. I can’t speak for personnel decisions, line combinations or general coaching matters. I can say very little about specific skills from the players themselves. However, I can offer a bit of pop psychology. The Colorado Avalanche are choking.

Next: The Avs Should Just Do What They Do

The Choking Phenomenon

According to psychology researchers, choking is a sub-optimal performance inferior to what the athlete is capable of — and inferior to how the athlete has performed in the past. We’ve seen a whole lot of that with the Colorado Avalanche players. How often do we ourselves lament “But what about the 2012-13 season?”

Well, turns out the athletes may be doing that as well. Choking occurs when athletes feel intense pressure to get everything right. Decathlete Dan O’Brien infamously choked in trying to even make the 1992 Olympics. Heavily favored to win, O’Brien didn’t even make the team because he couldn’t clear the pole vault.

O’Brien told Smithsonian Magazine that he walked around afterwards, clutching his head and moaning at his failure. He could clear that pole vault with ease. But he hadn’t done it.

When it comes to choking in the game-time situation, the heart rate elevates and anxiety increases at just the wrong time. This causes the muscles to tighten, and the athlete can even have trouble breathing. According to Competitive Edge, this physical response ruins the athlete’s mechanics and timing.

At the same time, self-doubts start creeping into their minds. The athletes stop focusing on the immediate game and instead concentrate on the result of their actions. They worry about the outcome of what they’re doing and forget how to just do what they do.

In short, in the moment of choking, physical and mental responses make it actually impossible to perform at peak levels. This is what players are alluding to when they say they’re losing their mental focus at critical times, like captain Gabriel Landeskog did in a post-game interview. It’s also what Joe Sakic’s talking about when he says certain players are “clutching their sticks too tightly.”

In that moment, talented players who’ve been primed since early childhood to play this game suddenly question their ingrained moves as if they were novices again.

The Colorado Avalanche Need the Heimlich Maneuver

When a person is literally choking, you give him the Heimlich maneuver, right? Well, giving a sharp squeeze to the Avalanche players’ sternum is unlikely to solve their current problem.

Rather, the Colorado Avalanche need a psychological Heimlich maneuver. This takes the form of distraction. That may seem counter-intuitive, but stay with me.

More from Mile High Sticking

Professional hockey players such as the Avalanche typically started playing hockey at four or five years of age — they probably started skating as soon as the wobble left their walking.

As talented players, they were mostly in the most elite clubs. They received instruction from the best coaches. They can almost certainly perform even the most complex hockey moves in their sleep (and have probably done so). I daresay drunken NHLers could beat any sober amateur league.

In other words, all the moves associated with hockey come as naturally to the Colorado Avalanche players as walking or chewing. The problem comes when they think about what they’re doing.

So, they have to stop thinking about what they doing. All the articles above suggest the same technique — focusing on irrelevant details. In a hockey game this could be the sound the skates make on the ice or the curve of your own blade.

What this does is it allows the player’s brain to stop short-circuiting. The boredom of such a focus also relaxes the player’s muscles. Instinct takes over, the player re-focuses on the present and he can perform at optimal levels again.

This may even be why some players are so superstitious. Focusing on the minutiae of an unrelated action prevents their minds from straying to the anxiety-inducing actions.

Head coach Patrick Roy is a big believer in studying everything about performance. I think he’s probably considered the choking phenomenon for the Colorado Avalanche players.

More from Mile High Sticking: Is the Culture of Losing Poisoning the Players?

Which Avs do you think could benefit from mental distraction during key moments of the game?