I've seen this phrase in several sports stories recently, and I believe it goes back several decades. The phrase can probably be broken into two parts: choke and clutch.

I know choking refers to failing in a critical situation. I'm curious how that term came about when we don't see people physically choking (or do we?) when they lose their composure or mess up. Clutch probably originated in baseball ("clutch hitter"), but the Wikipedia article links clutch to a car's transmission (timing?). I disagree and would consider this link a folk etymology. Instead, clutch is synonymous with pinch (i.e. putting pressure on something).

It seems that baseball used the terms clutch and pinch interchangeably at the start of the 20th century, but I'm not sure if they're still equivalent today. It would make sense for other sports to borrow from baseball, though no additional examples come to mind.

Can anyone shed some light on how far back this expression goes and the terms it uses?

My source is Lajoie's Official Base Ball Guide (1906), which provides some definitions on page 51.

  • What does the expression mean? I've heard choke and clutch used independently, but I've never heard of choke in the clutch, and Google seems to mostly bring up pages that just state that this is a sports expression… Dec 8, 2014 at 11:19
  • @JanusBahsJacquet The expression refers to a failure to perform well when an important situation calls for it. I've found several variations (e.g. fail in the clutch).
    – Zairja
    Dec 10, 2014 at 20:14
  • 1
    The most interesting item in the page 51 glossary is pinch hit, which in Lajoie's era meant to hit safely with men on base in a tight game; today it means to come off the bench to bat for another player (and thus, temporarily at least, to take his place in the game).
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 1, 2015 at 23:55

2 Answers 2


Early occurrences of 'choked up' and 'choked' in baseball settings

In the context of sports, use of choke to mean "blow an easy opportunity" seems to go back to baseball in the years shortly after World War II. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994): has this entry as one of its definitions of choke:

choke v ... 2. Esp. Sports to become tense or lose one's composure in a critical situation.Also choke up.

The dictionary then offers an example from Bill Roeder, Jackie Robinson (1950):

In one of the vital pennant battles in St. Louis, Robinson grabbed at his throat to signify that Bill Stewart, the umpire, was "choking up." Stewart threw him out of the game.

A second early example from baseball (also cited in the Random Hose dictionary) is from Jim Brosnan, Pennant Race (1962). Here's how Brosnan describes the scene in early June 1961 at his hotel home (during baseball season) in Cincinnati a few hours after he had blown a late lead for the Reds and lost a game to the Cubs:

The doorman didn't notice me slinking into the foyer. He was working a patron who'd checked out of the hotel, and said, "The Reds really choked again today. That puts the Dodgers in first. They'll never win the pennant."

I didn't even eat dinner that night.

These examples—particularly the Jackie Robinson one—suggest that early users of the slang term choked really did equate failing under pressure with losing the ability to breathe and to function normally, and thus with failing to maintain one's composure and to perform well.

I should perhaps add that "choking up" as Jackie Robinson used the term has nothing to do with "choking up" in the sense of gripping a bat one or more inches above the knob of the bat. In the latter case, the thin part of the bat handle is imagined as the neck of the bat (the widest part of the bat is called its head), so "choking up on the bat" means gripping the bat slightly closer to the head, which, done within reason, can help improve one's bat control at the cost of some loss in power.

Early occurrence of 'choke in the clutch'

A Google Books search finds an instance of "choke in the clutch" in Paul Krassner's The Realist, issues 71–98 (1968–1974) [combined snippets]:

23 July 1968

It was during Indian batting practice that I first actively participated in don Don's cryptically esoteric hallucinatory religious ceremony, or he called it, his "little pre-game show." I was taking extremely careful notes regarding don Don's concoction:

There were several small pieces of rosin from the pitcher's mound, three one-inch squares of pine tar rag, a scratched recording of the Star Spangled Banner sung by Eddie Fisher and Mel Ott, two hot dogs with French's mustard (a creamy yellowish substance) and two beers. Don Don said that the mustard was not essential but that it did make the recording more palatable.

I told don Don that I was terribly afraid, that I had never experienced anything like this before and that my mother expected me home for dinner after the game. He said not to be afraid since the Great Team Spirit would protect me and that by the bottom of the fourth we would be well on our way to the land of the Grand Slam and the Perfect Game. So knowing that you don't walk a guy intentionally with the bases loaded, we proceeded to ingest a mixture of all the ingredients.

"I am pleased that you did not choke in the clutch," don Don said.

This article was probably published in 1968 or soon thereafter. The story appears to be a burlesque of Carlos Castañeda's The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, (which was published in 1968), and the diary entries that make up the story include dates from July and August 1968. On the other hand, the version in Google Books is presented in snippet-view format, and it appears in a collection of issues of The Realist stretching from 1968 (issue 71) to February 1974 (issue 98), so its precise publication isn't clear from the Google Books data.


It appears that both 'choke' and 'clutch' are used in sports with a meaning close to their original ones: sense of failing ( choking) and reacting in a critical situation ( clutching). Being general terms both choke and clutch are used in many sports and situations.

To choke:

  • (Sports) To shorten one's grip on the handle of a bat or racket. Often used with up.

  • To fail to perform effectively because of nervous agitation or tension, especially in an athletic contest: choked by missing an easy putt on the final hole.

    • The baseball batting sense is by 1907. (Etymonline)

To clutch

  • A tense, critical situation: came through in the clutch.

adj. (Informal):

  • Being or occurring in a tense or critical situation: won the championship by sinking a clutch putt.
  • Tending to be successful in tense or critical situations: The coach relied on her clutch pitcher.

clutch performer is an expression from the 50's.

Choking research in sport (meaning to fail to perform effectively because of nervous agitation or tension, especially in an athletic contest) has suggested that an athlete's tendency to choke, versus give a better than usual (i.e., "clutch") performance depends on his or her personality, as well as on situational influences, such as a reliance on explicit (versus implicit) knowledge when pressured. The current study integrated these hypotheses and tested a structural equation model (SEM) to predict sport performance under pressure.

  • Thanks, I'm wondering if you have more information about choking. The Etymonline result states: Meaning "to fail in the clutch" is attested by 1976, American English. That is really part of what I'm after. I know what choking is in the context of sports, but I don't know who came up with it and why (it's an unintuitive phrase, to me at least).
    – Zairja
    Dec 10, 2014 at 20:17

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