A cramp occurs when muscles spasm. The same thing happens with athletes when they overload with emotion. Their mind cramps and they stop being able to do what they have been able to do thousands of times. They freeze, are unable to recall the motor memories from years of play and practice, and become unable to perform the simplest of tasks. Athletes call it choking under pressure. Some sports have coined their own phrases for the problem. Tennis players refer to it as iron elbow when they have to hit a second serve under pressure. Hockey players call it gripping the stick when they have trouble scoring goals. Golfers call it getting the yips when they can’t make the simplest of short putts. Baseball players refer to it as a hitting slump.

Regardless of what you call it, it is an athletes worst nightmare come true. Some never solve the problem and it forces an end to their career. A catcher for the New York Mets, Mackey Sasser, lost the ability to throw the ball back to the pitcher. After trying everything from rolling the ball back to the mound to double pumping his throw, he never overcame the problem and fell out of baseball. Baseball pitchers who lose the ability to throw strikes are referred to as suffering from the ìSteve Blass disease in honor of the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who developed the condition. Rick Ankiel, a St. Louis Cardinals pitcher several years ago was one of the more fortunate. He went from an All-Star to hitting the back stop and never able to hit the strike zone. After years of toiling in the minor leagues, he eventually made his way back to the major leagues, but this time as an outfielder at age 28. Just recently this past August, in the first two games back in the major leagues as a Cardinal, he hit three home runs in his first two games. Obviously, the fans appreciated not only his accomplishments but also his courage, and responded with three standing ovations.

One of the worst cases of a brain cramp occurred in the 1999 British Open, and illustrates how playing experience factors into the problem. Leading by three strokes and standing on the 18th tee, Jean Van de Velde seemingly had his first major victory in his grasp. All he needed to do was to play safe, put the ball in the fairway with an iron, take a bogey and win by two strokes. However, in his mind, a major dilemma existed. He was a mid-level professional who had never been in this position before. For this tournament, he vowed to take more risks in his play, and it was working. He was in the lead, because he had taken risks. Now he was faced with having to play it safe, the very problem that had led to his being a mediocre professional. What was he to do? Play it safe and feel like he would end up being mediocre again, or go for it like he had been doing to grab the lead? He chose to go with what got him there, proceeded to hit three bad shots, take a double bogey, end up in a tie, and lose the championship in a play-off. His decision was based on his history, and not his current situation. He needed to be able to adapt and his history of mediocrity made him unable to make the right choice to fit the circumstances.

History in the sport is not the only contributor to the problem of brain cramps. Internalizing the expectations of others can make the athlete lose their focus on their own improvement and enjoyment of the game. The pressures of living up to the expectations of a big contract, pressure to please parents, friends or fans, or the build up of emotions from unbalanced relationships can flood the athlete with emotion at the most inopportune time.


What can the athlete do to make himself or herself less vulnerable to brain cramps? Here is a list of 10 suggestions to reduce the likelihood of an incident:

Compete in a sport because you love it and for no other reason.

Measure your own success and have your own goals.

Learn from your coaches, but never surrender the choice to play your sport in your own way.

Give your sport the respect it deserves. If the sport wasn’t hard, it wouldn’t be a competitive sport.

Practice to reduce your weaknesses and improve your strengths, and practice, practice, practice.

Play the game to compete until the end. Winning takes care of itself.

Play to your strength until your opponent takes it away from you.

You can never get enough playing experience.

Put time into your important relationships.

Live your life in balance.