Chihayafuru – A Choke or Panic?
It should have been an easy victory.
New Team Chihayafuru is up against a team that, in all rights, should give them an easy victory. They have three players — Chihaya, Taichi and Nishida — who are damn good at karuta, which should be enough to give them an edge and propel them to the finals. But they had a tiff earlier with the frustrated Tsutomu, and their minds are elsewhere, particularly Chihaya’s. The team they face, Shuryukan, almost seems to sense their collective unease and yelps and bellows as a unit; it’s made clear that, as a whole, they’re not as talented as Chihaya’s group, but they make up for it using whatever tactics they can.
Shuryukan gets off to a fast start and takes several cards. Chihaya has trouble focusing. The words of encouragement and the accusations during the fight coalesce in her mind, and Chihaya’s mind wanders. Everything comes to a head when the chihayafuru card — Chihaya’s card — is read, and everyone on the team takes it but her, and cold panic grips her heart. Her mind is a blank: She suddenly forgets how to play the game. Every instinct is gone.
What sprang to mind immediately when I saw this scene in the latest Chihayafuru is that it is a classic “choke” scenario on the surface — you know, an athlete on a grand stage who should win the big one, but instead inexplicably falters when the pressure is at its highest. My job has prevented me from keeping up with sports as much as I’d like, so the biggest, most recent example I can conjure is LeBron James and the Miami Heat failing to close the deal against the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals over the summer. James is an immensely talented player, but when the pressure was at its toughest, it was almost as if he wanted no part of the game and passed the basketball at every moment. His team needed him to step up, but for whatever reason, he just couldn’t do it. That’s the scenario people think of when they think of “choking”.
But I also thought of something else as I examined that moment. I read a very interesting essay in Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw entitled “The Art of Failure: Why some people choke and others panic“. In this essay, Gladwell outlines the difference between “choking” and panicking and examines the circumstances in which the two reactions to pressure take place. I won’t be super detailed here, because Gladwell explains it far better than I ever could, but essentially when one “chokes” the brains reaction is to revert to the basics of the activity in which one is participating so that the person can find some footing. But what makes it difficult is that the person who chokes is making a conscious yet hesitant effort to reclaim the basic mechanics of the activity, and when you’re going up against a professional, that doesn’t help.
The reaction to panic, however, is what Chihaya went through in this episode: The mind goes blank. The lessons learned are forgotten, and the brain tries desperately to focus on something. But for a brief moment Chihaya can’t focus on anything — she’s too distracted by how she was unable to sense Tsutomu’s feelings, whether his accusations are unfair or not. Chihaya wants to win so that her group can play together and feel like a true team, but when the pressure bears down on her, she briefly panics.
I outline the difference mostly because reading about the difference and knowing it myself makes me more sympathetic to those who falter under pressure, however brief or enduring the faltering is. Athletes are ripped on endlessly for choking, and hey, they get paid quite a bit of money to play their respective sports, so some criticism is part of the deal. But there comes a point when one realizes that to err is human: Would you or I do so well under the same pressure? Maybe. Maybe not. People with great gifts often have great failures. Success rarely comes without a certain degree of failure. Chihaya is lucky enough to have the fortitude to face her failure, gather her strength and charge forward to claim what is important to her. Not all people are that lucky.
Anyway, blah blah blah, I didn’t have too much of a point in bringing this up — that one moment just made me think of something interesting, and I thought I’d share it with the class.