Choking is an extreme emotional feeling, it can be overwhelming but how do we stop choking under pressure? When you study the science behind choking, studies have shown its the attachment to hating to lose or loss aversion. It takes our focus away from the controllable elements of our performance to the uncontrollables, the weather, how our opponent is playing or a niggling injury.
Often, the smarter you are the more susceptible you are to choking The reason for this is a larger working memory able to hold more information at one time. Smarter people can often overthink and analyse things too much and get caught in loop that is detrimental to peak performance. Its almost as if their working memory gets clogged up, just like a sink. So as a result they do not have the capacity to focus.
Choking can result from thinking too much. We can focus too much on technique or the mechanics which should be saved for practice sessions. We let other distractions in like comparing how other athletes are performing and how calm they look compared to us.
So how do we get ourselves out of this loop and stop choking under pressure?
Slow down the mind and breathe and drive your attention to what can I do? What do I want to achieve? This is about diverting the brain away from its trapped thinking patterns. Becoming too focussed on the outcome instead of the process, e.g. building the point in a tennis match and waiting for the opportunity ball vs I need to win this match to stay in the competition. We can often revert to beginners status when the brain is overworked and trying to focus on too many things.
An effective way of diverting the brain from this clogged up thinking pattern is to focus on a power word or phrase e.g. fluid, relax or breathe or this is fun, I love this, I am smiling. It can be helpful to train the brain to do this in practice and then carry it into the tennis match or race. This technique will help get the brain out of “worry mode” and into a more calm, relaxed and present mode.
Another way to get interrupt an overworked brain is to breathe deeply. If you can take a time out or in between points in a match or in a race, try breathing in for 3, hold for 3, then breathe out slowly for 5 (always ensure the out breath is longer than the in breath). You can also say to yourself “I am breathing in strength and relaxation and I am breathing out negative energy.
Its important to note that our “worry mode” is based on a particular fear which might not always be obvious to us. It can be fear that we don’t stack up against our peers, it could be fear of injury or simply the fear of messing up if we put it all on the line. Often journalling can help draw this out if its not immediately obvious. We can then work on more constructive an helpful self talk in the moment, e.g. this opponent struggles just like me, they have their weaknesses just like me, I don’t need to be perfect as that doesn’t exist, I am going to trust in my preparation and training and focus on doing the best I can point by point, minute by minute.
When under pressure, we can place unnecessary critique on every mistake we make. We seek perfection and quickly attack ourselves when we mess up. Perfection does not exist, and we don’t need to be perfect for a peak performance and its critical we remind ourself of that. This is where “positive denial” can be helpful. If you miss or shank a shot or take a fall, you can mentally brush yourself down and then after quickly addressing in your mind what to do to prevent that again, simply wash it away as if it didn’t happen. You can swing your arms behind you to signify “its behind me”.
Having a Plan B can also be an effective way to prevent choking in a match or race. Its worth running through with your coach ahead of time the possible things that might not go your way and how you might tackle them if they come up. We all want the perfect conditions but is not always going to go to plan. A simple “if this happens, then I do this….” is enough. For example, if the wind is blowing fiercely and you struggle to serve, could you keep the toss lower, could you slice more shots to keep the ball low. If in a race and the heat is getting to you can you visualise a magnet on the back of the runner in front of you pulling you forward. Just having thought about these things in advance and prepared for them can bring a level of calm to your performance and allow more mental bandwidth to tackle what you need to.
All these techniques referred to above can really help to avoid what we call choking under pressure. Above all, its important to be in the present, positive and appreciative of the opportunity to compete. You have put in the hard work to allow yourself to be in this position. So go out, be your best self and enjoy it! Your performance will thank you for it.
If you enjoyed this post, don’t forget to leave your comments below and let me know what you’re working on in training and what you might use from the above in your next competition!
I am a sports Certified Performing Edge Coaching Professional (PECP) and qualified Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapist. I was trained by Master Performing Edge Coach and sports psychology expert, Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter. I work with athletes to help improve their focus, confidence, motivation, communication skills, productivity, teamwork and overall performance to help them consistently achieve their potential and maximize performance. If you’d like to discuss how I might help you work towards your goals, click the Contact me link below and leave your details with a brief message and I’ll get in touch!