Written by John R. Ellsworth, M.A., Sport Psychology Consultant & Mental Game Coach
In the moment when the three foot putt is needed to close out a tournament, the golfer carefully adjusts his stroke only to miss by a few inches to the left. A free throw is needed to take the game to overtime, and the 90% free throw shooter misses off the front of the rim. A penalty kick is needed to equalize in the 90th minute, and the team’s top scorer misses off the post. In each case, an experienced athlete stresses out to the point where his or her performance is hindered. Choking at any level is not uncommon in sports. It’s happened at one time or another to all of us.
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The drama of the moment can be excruciating to watch, particularly when the athlete is at the height of their career or even worse, it’s your son or daughter, or an athlete you may be coaching. The many hours of purposeful practice and diligent preparation seem to vaporize. Whatever the situation, there is most always a feeling of losing control, anxiety, apprehension, or panic.In, ‘What the Dog Saw’ Malcolm Gladwell has a very interesting chapter on The Art of Failure. He discusses the difference between how the brain processes information in stressful situations and various supportive psychological studies related to choking and panicking.
Gladwell says, “Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about the loss of instinct. Panic is the reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart.” Both choking and panicking are caused by conditions of extreme stress.
Choking starts in the mind; the fear of failure, anxiety about losing a game, or a poor focus of attention can bring it on. The mind goes into hyper drive. The athlete’s focus becomes distracted by something internal (thought, feeling, or visual) or possibly something external. The mind begins to drift to unproductive negative thoughts that derail focus away from the task at hand. Focus on task relevancy is replaced by worry of things that cannot be controlled. Negative self-talk takes over and doubt sets in. The combination of negative self-talk with doubt leads to an influx of anxiety which steals the athlete’s ability to remain composed. The increasing intensity of anxiety creates nervousness, inflexibility, and may cause breathing difficulty.
Remember Lolo Jones, the America hurdler who lived through a nightmare in the Beijing Olympics? With a commanding lead and on the verge of winning gold she clipped the 9th hurdle, and stumbled across the finish line in 7th place. When asked about her performance sometime after she said, “I really just put too much pressure on myself.”
In her human performance laboratory at the University of Chicago, Sian Beilock, an associate professor of psychology, and author of a book entitled “Choke” has experimented with athletes under extreme stress and has come to identify the anatomy of choke.
The first thing, she says, “Is to understand that choking is a real thing, and the second thing to understand is that choking is not random. You hear people who choke say afterward they let their brain get in the way. And there’s truth to that.” She suggests that “pressure raises self-consciousness and anxiety about performing correctly. Attention to execution at a step-by-step level is thought to disrupt well learned or procedural performances.”
Getting rid of the “choking” feeling involves teaching the athlete a series of mental skills. The first task is to get athlete centered in the moment. This is about going back to the relevant tasks critical to successful execution of the skill. Second, improving composure through arousal management is essential. It is here where the athletes take’s control of their body energy through the use specific breathing techniques. Third the athlete must eliminate the negative thinking and either reframe the negative thoughts into more positive terms, or replace them with new statements that support success. The final step is to practice using a relevant cue word or phrase in distracting situations as a reminder of what to do with their skill execution to influence success. [S1]
To successfully beat choking the distractions which cause stress and over thinking must be eliminated and substituted with a mindset that is centered and focused on the process of trusting in skills mastery. When under pressure acknowledge the butterflies and restructure them in a positive way (“I am amped up for this game”) rather than a negative (“I am freaked out about this”). You will have a much greater chance of turning things into a positive and successful experience.