Sports “choking” is an all-too-common occurrence where otherwise talented and able athletes find themselves performing well below their ability. Choking becomes an especially big problem when the game is on the line and the battle becomes one between the athlete’s ears more than against the competition. The good news is choking is not an irreversible condition, nor is it something that requires intense therapy or drug intervention. In fact, the moment an athlete recognizes and accepts that he or she struggles with choking, the sooner the condition can be improved upon.
What is choking?
Choking is a slang term for individuals to struggle performing a task in competitive (or real situations) even though they regularly do the task in practice conditions. While we tend to think of choking only in sports, people of all walks of life are challenged to execute skills in real situations that they perform effortlessly in practice. For example, while most people can deliver a speech alone in front of a mirror, some struggle to deliver the same speech in front of a room of people. Choking can be a quirky, annoying inconvenience to a young athlete trying to hit a baseball in a clutch situation, but can be a much more serious condition for professionals who work in other settings — like a surgeon required to perform a medical procedure while a life hangs in the balance.
How to beat choking
When it comes to choking there is a lot of good news to report. First, choking is a learned behavior, meaning it can also be un-learned. Athletes who struggle with choking do not need to take medicine, and most can fix the problem without ongoing therapy. Choking is also something that can be improved upon rather quickly, especially with athletes determined to learn how to control their anxiety while building self-confidence. The only bad news when it comes to choking is that it typically doesn’t fix itself, and athletes who ignore their issues with anxiety typically see the condition hang around indefinitely (and often exacerbate).
While there isn’t one single way to improve upon choking, there are three key tips that will help athletes quickly extinguish the problem.
- Frame situations accurately. Perception is the biggest variable linked to choking, meaning when you frame situations as challenges rather than threats the odds of choking diminishes dramatically. For example, simply being excited about playing well at the end of a game (instead of worrying about the competition) automatically increases self-confidence, focus, and motivation. When we perceive threats (fear), the opposite occurs and our anxiety prompts shallow breathing, a faster heart rate, and tighter muscles (all things that prevent mind-body synchrony).
- Learn relaxation skills. Forewarned is forearmed — if you know you tend to get nervous, doesn’t it make sense to have a skill (or two) ready to offset your nerves? Positive self-talk, imagery, deep breathing, and cue word utilization are just a few quick examples of mental skills athletes can learn quite quickly and use anytime during competition.
- Review your success. Keep notes on your games and practices and make especially sure to document even the smallest of success. For example, maybe you played with better focus and intensity at the end of last game, even though you didn’t win — in this example it is important to keep a journal of the improvement and study what you did in order for success to have happened. Next time out, be sure to employ the same mind set and strategies.
Choking is the #1 hurdle when it comes to otherwise talented athletes reaching their full athletic potential. Unfortunately, athletes who ignore or deny their choking rarely improve on choking, resulting in an athlete who plays below his or her potential. Choking is also something that isn’t eliminated by simply practicing more, but instead only minimizes when mental skills are employed and the athlete is able to play with confidence again. For more help with choking and other mental skills please visit our website here.