One of the most intriguing and unexplainable things about sports is when we see an otherwise talented athlete “choke,” or perform far below his ability when the game is on the line. Why is it that the same basketball hoop that looks 10 feet wide in practice suddenly becomes a tight circle with a tiny radius when only seconds are left on the clock, or an otherwise easy 3 foot putt in golf practice now seems like the hole is a mile away when the tournament is on the line? Interestingly, ABC News examined the question around choking this week and supplied readers with some interesting sport psychology findings.
According to the ABC News report one big reason athletes choke is that they actually think too much! I absolutely agree with this, as many of the clients I have worked with over the years have ended up being their own worst enemies, mostly because they got caught up thinking too much and at the expense of simply playing freely. “Analysis paralysis” occurs when we contemplate a situation for more time than is needed, often allowing anxiety to spike while confidence subsides. This inverse relationship between confidence and anxiety is a killer in sports, and what is largely responsible for “choking.”
When we over-think situations we also disrupt the mind-body synchrony needed for successful sports movements. In other words, muscle memory (the automatic movements we make while competing) is replaced by random and reckless thoughts that steer focus and energy away from the desired target movements. Interestingly, the advice many coaches give to their players when they say “trust your stuff” is actually brilliant advice, as it encourages players to play freely and not get too caught up in thinking about things the athlete already knows how to do!
In order to minimize choking while maximizing athletic potential try the following three tips:
1. Focus on what is relevant, and let go of what is irrelevant. Remember, the game remains the same regardless of the fans, officials, or even the stadium – when athletes remind themselves of the things that are relevant to their success and discipline themselves to keep their focus on those things, only then can peak athletic performance be achieved.
2. Breathe! The easiest, fastest, and most efficient way to quickly reduce anxiety is to breathe deeply all the way into your stomach — hold that breathe for a few seconds, then release. Deep diaphragm breathing (or belly breathing) is a no-brainer when it comes to keeping anxiety and check, and may be the most important mental skill an athlete can learn and master.
3. Journal success. Remember, confidence is king when it comes to athletic success, and the more confident you are the less likely you will experience negative, debilitating anxiety. Unfortunately, athletes don’t usually just snap their fingers and become confident, and herein is why journaling is so important. By documenting daily successes you will be able to have a catalog to look back upon and re-read some of the great athletic achievements you have had in the past. Journaling only needs to take up a couple minutes a day, at most — but the dividends that include confidence development might be the best medicine when it comes to overcoming choking!
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analysis paralysis – confidence (self-efficacy) — muscle memory — focus (relevant – irrelevant)