Written by Mark Tobin, Ph.D., Principal

A basketball team is one point behind as time expires. A player has been fouled with a one and one opportunity. Make both, the team wins. Miss the first, they lose. The player misses the first free throw. Did she choke?

The answer is maybe. It depends on whether the missed free throw was due to a psychological or physical error. Understanding the difference between these types of errors is key to performing at the highest level of any sport (or your own personal highest level).

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If the player assessed the situation and immediately began focusing on her pre-shot routine she did not choke. If she forgot about the outcome of the game and instead focused on her breathing, number of ball bounces and confidently visualized the ball going through the hoop, she did her job. That would mean the free throw was missed due to a physical error, which will occur at times regardless of skill level.

On the other hand, if the player looked at the scoreboard and went to the free throw line with thoughts like “I can’t let the team down,” “I hope this goes in” or “I don’t want to lose the game,” she choked.

By definition (at least mine!) choking can only occur when an athlete loses focus on the task and instead worries about the outcome of the contest.  This can be a conscious or unconscious process. Attention is diverted from the skill necessary to execute and instead directed to thoughts or fears around winning and losing. Most athletes endure choking several times before breaking through a particular barrier in getting to the next level. As the adage goes, “If you have never choked you have never been in a position to.” When you choke, evaluate the reasons and commit to not making the same mistakes during your next opportunity. Then, let it go. Understand everyone has to fight his or her way through this process in order to get to the highest level. Eventually, you will become comfortable under the gun and learn all the necessary lessons for your breakthrough.

It’s important to remember that not all anxiety is bad anxiety. Being a little nervous before or during a contest is your body’s way of telling you this one matters. You need some level of anxiety to be “in the zone.” Otherwise, the contest doesn’t matter enough to demand your best.

Self-talk determines whether anxiety will help or hinder your performance. If you let anxiety creep into doubts about whether you will be successful, you’re toast. If you interpret anxiety as the body’s signal to “step up” to the challenge, you will.

To prevent anxiety from turning into choking, coaches can help athletes understand these keys:

  • Remind your athletes of their level of preparation. If they have the opportunity to choke they are performing at a high level—the contest matters. They didn’t get to this point without a great deal of work. If they have prepared properly they earned the right to be confident. Reinforce confidence based on preparation.
  • Train your athletes in deep breathing to “slow things down” under pressure. Most mental mistakes are made due to thoughts and actions speeding up when under the gun.
  • Create an environment during practice and games to avoid all outcome thinking. Educate your athletes to execute to the best of their ability and let the outcome take care of itself.
  • Help your athletes understand that staying true to their pre-shot routine will allow them to avoid outcome thinking and prepare the body to execute. Their routine should always include visualization of successful execution.

Anxiety can either cause your athletes to rise to the occasion or choke. With these tips, they now have a choice!