A writer of popular nonfiction books recently gave an interview in which he described the difference between "panic" and "choking." Panic, he explained, was the amateur's response to being in over his head without the proper tools or skill set. Conversely, choking is the professional's temporary inability to access his or her expertise.
The distinction between the two concepts is not a subtle one. While failure is the common and inevitable outcome of both, the difference between them poses some interesting questions. Panic implies making a wrong decision. On the other hand, choking could be defined as the right action performed badly.
Predictably, the examples the writer provided centered exclusively on athletes. So I began to wonder if the same concept couldn't be applied to business endeavors. Would it explain why perfectly viable small businesses fail? And why do the owners, who are often experienced businesspeople, make some truly bone-headed decisions, especially when the financial pressure is on?
Of course, business journals, books and magazines are filled with stories of once highflying businesses that needlessly crashed in spectacular fashion. As we all know, hindsight is almost always 20/20 and armchair quarterbacks never make a false move. Still, the owners of many of these businesses should have clearly seen disaster looming on the horizon or simply known better than to make the kinds of decisions they made.
In bulk vending, for instance, I've spoken to a number of operators in recent months who seem very likely to have made a series of disastrous business decisions ranging from dramatically cutting back on service schedules and abandoning borderline profitable equipment on locations to firing longtime employees in fits of panic and entering into hostile confrontations with clients. Incredibly, many of these operators have found ways to justify, rather than fix the damage. If their businesses fail, they'll sometimes blame the economy. After all, we live in an age when nearly everything can be justified. In retrospect, few remember the justification for these catastrophic decisions. They only recall the consequences.
Presented with both panic and choking, I think that choking is a far more interesting phenomenon. Panic stems from lacking the skill to accomplish the job, so there's no mystery to it. On the other hand, choking is a failure despite possessing the necessary skill set. Sports fans are accustomed to the spectacle of star athletes choking on a regular basis, whether it's at the free throw line or 6th green, the missed basket or putt have largely come to represent failures of nerve or character under pressure. The athletes often look just as mystified as everyone else and are unable to explain the failure during post-game interviews.
There is something sad about watching an athlete choke. The pressure, which should bring out their best and turn them into heroes, shows them to be all too human.
The same could be said for choking when it comes to business, except that the breakdown is not one of an instant in which years of preparation and hard-won expertise fail, but an extended span of time – weeks, months or years – during which a single bad decision leads to another and another and another. Even in big business, every bad decision is justified at the time. Only the consequences are recalled.
So, how can business people not choke, even when the pressure is on? Perhaps the answer can be found in sports, where the pros rely on tough mental training. This is particularly true for golf, where "mental golf coaches" abound. Because as the great athlete-philosopher Yogi Berra once said, "Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical."