Choking in Sports

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Some people call it the “yips”, “jitters”, or even just plain “choking”.  But whatever you call it, it can be devastating to an athlete.  Especially if it’s your livelihood and you’re making millions of dollars a year!  However, athletes aren’t just the only ones that can choke…  Have you ever been nervous giving that huge presentation to your entire company?  Or have you ever toasted your best friend at his wedding in front of all of their closest friends and family?  We all know the feeling.  Choking can be one of the worst feelings in the world when you’re an athlete and it can cause you to mess up something that you’ve spent a lifetime perfecting.

The term “choking” refers to poor performance exhibited by an athlete.  It is performance that is worse than expected for the athlete’s skill level, particularly during pressure situations.  During these pressure situations, both your body and mind are reacting to the stress.  Common reactions during pressure situations include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweaty palms
  • Breathing faster
  • Flushed skin
  • Worrisome thoughts

These worrisome thoughts can cause an athlete overthink what they are doing, which can be detrimental to their performance.  Dr. Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago psychologist and author of Choke, has dedicated her career to studying the situations in which an athlete “chokes” under pressure.  Dr. Beilock uses the phrase, “paralysis by analysis,” in which she describes as the athlete paying too much attention to their skills that should run on autopilot.  When an athlete pays too much attention to their skills, they usually mess them up.

For example, a pitcher just had two straight home runs hit off his pitches.  A common response is that he begins to question himself and whether he can throw the right ball or if he has the will to even do it.  Right then and there, he’s already too much attention to the aspects of his skills.  He starts questioning his abilities and doing that makes it incredibly difficult for him to strike out even the next batter.

There are several things that an athlete can do to prevent themselves from “choking”:

  1. Yogi Berra once said, “Ninety-percent of this game is half mental,” which what he meant was don’t think too much!!!  The athlete should not focus too much on the skill they are performing, rather they should focus on meaningless details so the brain is preoccupied and does not have time to overthink. For example, a baseball pitcher could focus on the catchers’ glove.  By doing that, it’ll take his mind off his pitching and force his mind to focus on something meaningless.
  2. Practice how to perform in pressure situations and get used to the stressors that they experience.  Research has shown that getting used to even a mild level of stress can prepare us enough to adapt in high stress situations.  A golfer could partner with someone and race to a specific goal with something rewarding for the person who reaches the goal first.  If you often play rounds by yourself, keep your scorecards and play a match against your previous rounds, against par or against your best round.
  3. Reduce negative thinking and focus more on positive thoughts.  Some athletes use meditation to assist them in letting go of negative thoughts and being able to focus more on positive ones.  Think back to your childhood favorite “The Little Engine That Could”.  That famous book contains much more than just a positive message… it’s a major life lesson!  Change your thoughts from “I think I can,” to “I know I can!”
  4. Use relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises.  For example, try breathing in your nose for three seconds and breathe out your mouth for six seconds.  Not only will it help to reduce your bodies reaction to stress such as heart racing and sweaty palms, but focusing on counting will make it less likely that you will focus on the skill you are about to perform.  Yoga instructors, marathon runners, and even professional body builders will tell you that when you concentrate in on your breathing, the rest of your body will follow.  Pretty powerful advice that you can do in just 9 seconds at a time.

All in all, the main thing to remember to prevent yourself from “choking” is to not over-think what you’re doing.  Trust in your skills and abilities to perform, even in high pressure situations.

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