Thursday, 28 April 2011


A Hard Day's Night

By now – and excuse the pun – the word must really stick in the throat. Chokers… Powerful things, words, powerful enough to make you, well, choke. For sticks and stones do break bones, but names can also sometimes hurt. Indeed, a word – an insult – can be heard so often that, embedded in one’s most intimate thoughts, it eventually comes to be believed (“you’re nothing but a waste of space”). A self-fulfilling prophecy. But what exactly does the ‘chokers’ tag mean? And is it true? 

We should first acknowledge that meaning is a slippery thing – y’know what I mean? And yet, despite all the difficulties we get in to with language – not meaning what we say, not saying what we mean – people nevertheless tend to assume that meaning is pretty stable and transparent. All one needs to do is pull words from a vocabulary, a dictionary, either alone or in combinations, and apply them correctly to things or events in ‘reality’, right?

Wrong. Talk to linguistics professors (as I’m sure you often do) and what will become apparent is the lack of any consensus over how meaning and language work. One only has to consider such everyday words as ‘justice’, ‘truth’ or ‘beauty’ to realize that, even if the abstract meaning is agreed upon, there’s no simple, transparent correspondence between the words on the page, or our lips, and the things in reality (or ‘referents’).

Furthermore, the same referent can have more than one word – googly, wrong’un or Bosie?; lap, paddle, or sweep?; bouncer or bumper? – while what one culture sees as a single referent can be, for another, several distinct things, whence the Inuit having twenty-nine different words for snow!

So, rather than reflect a reality that’s there for all to see, words shape – and are shaped by – reality. They are tools for getting things done: promising, apologising, marrying; distracting, intimidating; not falling through a specific type of ice while hunting... And they are thus anything but neutral – quite often weapons, in fact. All the best sledgers know that you don’t have to be truthful to have the desired effect…

In order for slippery, specialised words to stick to a referent – the C-word to a cricket team, for instance – an authoritative source or expert is usually required. Labels must be correctly applied (it can sometimes be a question of life and death). So it was that, in the aftermath of the Proteas’ exit from the World Cup, the CEO of Cricket South Africa, Gerald Majola, confessed, in a manner redolent of a new inductee at Alcoholics Anonymous: “We've always had this chokers tag with us; unfortunately we've allowed it to stick. We have to accept the problem and then deal with it.”

For all Majola’s seniority and tangible patriotic heartache, perhaps his expert credentials are not so watertight. Maybe a more authoritative source is provided by the sports psychologist Jeremy Snape, former Performance Director with the South African team and still engaged with them in a consultative capacity.

Snape’s general definition of choking is “poor decision-making under pressure” and he draws a distinction between that and “normal underperformance”. Furthermore, he argues that “there are so many different variables you could look at, with tactics, selection, preparation, and decisions, that it’s impossible to pinpoint when a match was lost.” Perhaps with Klusener’s hero-to-zero performance in the 1999 semi-final in mind, he continued: “What is to say that failure to deliver skills in the last over was more ‘criminal’ than an error made at the start of a game?”

With a post-World Cup de-brief to conduct following his IPL commitments with Rajasthan Royals, Snape is still far too involved with the team to offer a public verdict on the latest disappointment but says that he would first look to analyse “the statistical evidence for par scores, percentage of games won chasing under lights, etc” before reaching any firm conclusions.

So, whether or not the C-word corresponds to a trait of South African sportsmen (a Rugby World Cup victory suggests otherwise), to this cricket team (again, chasing down 414 in a Test match in Australia is strong counter-evidence), or even just to a set of performances on a particular day, one thing is certain: they will only un-stick the label, only silence the braying armchair punditariat and journalists tipsy on schadenfreude, by producing a high-profile victory. And when they do, the monkey on their back and albatross around their neck will be delighted for a change of company. 


Unknown said...

Eloquently put as always Scott. I have also read your follow up with Jeremy Snape with interest. There have been many sportsmen and teams over the years who have made poor decisions under pressure - the media feast on it - it is what makes sport so interesting. The fascination of the penalty kick under pressure (Rugby or Football); the right club selection coming up the 18th with a two shot lead; will the fast bowler go for length or yorker to the tail ender in a tight situation - has he got the skills to execute. An article on the great chokes of sporting history would be a great read...

One more thing - 29 words for snow - a bit of an urban myth perhaps?

Scott Oliver said...

Karlito, apologies for the slow reply; I have only just seen your comment. Anyway, thanks for your kind words.

There is an interesting discussion of the Dutch attitude to penalties in the brilliant 'Brilliant Orange', by David Winner (one of the best sports books I've ever read; highly recommended). They have an abysmal record. No spoiler here...

Yeah, agree about your idea making for a good piece; not sure I 100% endorse Snape's definition though. I'd have thought that choking was, more precisely, losing from an almost impregnable winning position. Jean van de Velde at the Open springs to mind.

Lastly, the reason for eskimos' snow-heavy vocabulary is touched upon here, in a lecture given by a philosopher I drew on a lot for my thesis, Manuel DeLanda:

Andy said...

Yes. I agree Scott