In sports, choking under pressure is commonplace. It is painful, horribly devastating and can have many damaging psychological effects for the athletes involved.
A choke, which is failure to maintain performance through completion of the contest, is different than an upset. In the first round of the 2018 NCAA basketball tournament, top-seeded Virginia didn’t choke against UMBC: they were thoroughly trounced. Down by 11 before the first TV timeout of the second half, UVA was no match for the Retrievers and eventually lost by 20. The 1999 Open Championship, however, was a choke. Leading by three strokes with one hole to play, Jean van de Velde needed only to make double bogey to win the Claret Jug. With the entire world watching, the Frenchman carded a triple, then lost in a playoff. Now that’s a choke.
Today we examine the biggest all-time choke jobs in sports history: ten of the most soul-crushing, stomach punching, please-somebody-wake-me-up-because-this-must-be-a-bad-dream bad moments ever.
The Chicago Cubs are the most lovable losers in sports. In 1984, they held a 2-0 advantage over the San Diego Padres in the best-of-five NLCS, only to lose three in a row. Nearly two decades later, the Cubbies led the Florida Marlins three games to two in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. Up 3-0 at home, they were five outs away from making their first World Series appearance since 1945 before the roof caved in. While Cub fans like to blame Steve Bartman, it was bad baseball that cost them the game and the Series. Although the much-maligned Bartman may have taken away Moises Alou’s chance to retire Luis Castillo, shortstop Alex Gonzalez booted a double-play ball that would have ended the inning and sent Chicago into the ninth ahead by at least two runs. It was the beginning of a Cubs meltdown. The Marlins plated eight runs to win. The Cubs then blew an early lead the following night and lost Game 7.
With two laps to go in the 2011 Indianapolis 500, 22-year-old J.R. Hildebrand seized the lead. On the 100th anniversary of the inaugural race, he was well in front coming into the final turn as he attempted to become just the ninth rookie to win the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Hildebrand tried to avoid Charlie Kimball’s car, which had run out of gas and was on the apron of the entrance to Turn 4. Coming out of the north chute, Hildebrand crashed into the wall with the checkered flag in sight. As his Honda skidded down the front stretch, it appeared for a moment he might slide in and still win the race. But the late Dan Wheldon was at full speed as he sprinted past Hildebrand to win Indy for the second time in his career. It was only the second time in Indy 500 history that a race-winning pass was made on the final lap. Hildebrand finished second, the fourth consecutive runner-up finish for Panther Racing.
Golf has witnessed several historic collapses. In the final round of the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, Arnold Palmer squandered a seven-shot lead with nine holes to play, forcing a playoff with Billy Casper. In the playoff the following day, Arnie took a two-shot lead to the back nine, only to fall apart once again and hand Casper the championship. Four decades later, Phil Mickelson arrived at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot with a chance to become just the fourth player to win three consecutive majors. Standing on the 18th tee on Sunday, Lefty held a one-shot lead over Geoff Ogilvy, then knocked his drive onto a hospitality tent far left of the fairway. What followed was a comedy of errors, resulting in Mickelson making double bogey and Ogilvy winning the only major of his career.
The brain releases cortisol or adrenaline under pressure, two things that can contribute to athletes losing fine motor skills, coordination and even the ability to think clearly
Two of the biggest collapses in NFL history involved the same two teams. On January 3, 1993, the Houston Oilers traveled to Buffalo to take on the Bills in an AFC Wild Card Game. The Oilers led at halftime, 28-3, and many of the 70,000 in attendance at Rich Stadium headed for the exits. Buffalo recovered from a 32-point deficit and took a 38-35 lead with just over three minutes left. The Oilers tied it to send the game into overtime, where Steve Christie kicked a 32-yard field goal to win it for the Bills, who overcame the largest deficit in NFL history to win. Houston fans dubbed it The Choke. Buffalo fans called it The Comeback. The Oilers would get revenge 17 years later. After moving to Nashville to become the Tennessee Titans, they beat the Bills on the final play of the 2000 AFC Wild Card Game – the Music City Miracle.
In Game 7 of a first-round matchup of the 2013 NHL Playoffs, the Toronto Maple Leafs led the Boston Bruins, 4-1, midway through the third period. The Bruins cut the lead to 4-2 at 9:18, then 4-3 with 1:22 remaining. Boston tied it with 51 seconds left in regulation, then won it in overtime on a goal by Patrice Bergeron. A Maple Leafs coach said the third period was “like watching a car crash in super-slow motion.” It was the first Game 7 in NHL playoff history in which a team trailing by three goals in the third period went on to win the game and, therefore, the series. The following day’s headline in the Toronto Sun blared, “The Choke’s On Us!”
The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors finished the regular season with record of 73-9, best in NBA history. The Dubs set numerous records, including most road wins  and best start to a season [24-0]. Led by Steph Curry, who was coming off back-to-back MVP seasons, the defending champion Warriors were making their second straight trip to the Finals, where they faced the Cleveland Cavaliers. Golden State won the opener by 15 points, then took Game 2 by 33. When the Warriors took a three-games-to-one lead heading back to Oakland, the Cavs were left for dead. Instead, the Warriors imploded, losing three straight games by a combined 33 points to hand Cleveland its first NBA title and the first championship for the beleaguered city in over half a century.
An important thing to understand is choking is mental, emotional and physical – it’s all of that.” Lindsay Hyman, a sports psychologist who works with athletes at the U.S. Olympic training center. “the tipping point is different for each individual”
In 1974, the Boston Red Sox led the AL East by seven games on August 23, tanked, and finished third — seven games back. Four years later, they squandered a nine-game lead in mid-August, then rebounded to win their last eight to force a playoff with the Yankees, losing in the Bucky Dent Game. Neither collapse compares to the 1986 World Series when the BoSox were one strike away from their first world championship in 67 years. After taking a 5-3 lead into the 10th inning against the Mets in Game 6, things unraveled. Boston righthander Calvin Schiraldi gave up three straight hits before Bob Stanley uncorked a wild pitch that tied the game. Game 6 ended with the most infamous play in postseason history, when Mookie Wilson’s roller went through Bill Buckner’s legs, allowing the winning run to score. In Game 7, the Red Sox took a 3-0 lead into the sixth inning before allowing eight runs in the final three frames to lose, 8-5.
April 14, 1996, was a postcard-pretty Sunday afternoon at Augusta National Golf Club until things quickly turned ugly for Greg Norman. Norman had played flawlessly through the first three rounds. The 41-year-old Australian had tied the course record with an opening round 63 and had expanded his lead over Nick Faldo from four to six shots on Saturday. After making a 5 on the 9th hole on Sunday – his third bogey of the round – Norman’s lead was down to two. Observers could tell he was unraveling, and not just from the leaderboard. The Shark still had hope at the turn. He’d played Augusta’s famed back nine at 11-under in the first three days of the tournament. But Norman had demons. He had started eight previous majors with the Sunday lead, only to win just one, at the ’86 British Open. After finding Rae’s Creek and double bogeying 12 on Masters Sunday, he lost five shots to Faldo in four holes. Norman’s last gasp came when he barely missed a chip for eagle at 15 and fell to the ground. Norman shot a final round 78 to lose the 1996 Masters by five strokes.
With six minutes left in the third quarter of Super Bowl LI, the Atlanta Falcons had expanded their lead over the New England Patriots to 28-3. Up by 16 with nine minutes left, the Falcons probability of winning was 99.6 percent. The statistical chances of blowing that victory are the equivalent of losing eight consecutive coin flips. Yet Atlanta did – giving up a 25-point lead in heartbreaking fashion. The Falcons’ collapse was the biggest in Super Bowl history. Late in the fourth quarter, Atlanta had the ball at New England’s 22-yard line. Three kneels would have resulted in a 40-yard field goal to ice the game. Instead, a one-yard loss, a sack, and a holding penalty knocked the Falcons out of field goal range. Down 28-20, the Pats roared back for a touchdown, then made a two-point conversion to tie it and force overtime. In OT, Atlanta never touched the ball. New England received the kickoff and methodically marched down the field to win it on a two-yard run by James White.
The team with a reputation as baseball’s biggest losers in big games not only beat the vaunted Yankees, they did it after spotting them a three-game advantage. No baseball team had ever been down three-games-to-none in the playoffs and come back to win — until the 2004 ALCS. The mighty Yanks scored 32 runs in winning the first three games, including 19 in Game 3. Trailing 4-3 going into the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4, Mariano Rivera – the greatest closer in history – took the mound for New York and it appeared the Red Sox were toast. The Sox tied it off Rivera, then David Ortiz won it with a 12th inning walk-off homer. Rivera blew another 4-3 lead the following night and Boston had life. Game 6, the Bloody Sock Game, saw Curt Schilling pitch a masterpiece and the series was tied. Game 7 was a no-doubter, as Boston built a quick 6-0 lead and the Yankees were done, losing 10-3 to cap off the biggest choke in baseball history.