Created by Sharleen Hoar, Ph.D., Mental Performance Consultant December 2015
"When it comes to choking, the bottom line is that everyone does it. The question [is]: how [are you] going to handle it? Part of being a champion is being able to cope with it better than everyone else." - John McEnroe, Grand Slam Tennis player [(Goffi, 1984, p. 61-62) As quoted in Vealey et al., 2014, p.157].
The Vancouver Canucks entered the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs as a favourite. The club had finished runner-up (losing 4-3) in the final playoff round the year prior. That season the Canucks won the President’s Cup for the second consecutive season with 111 points, winning 118 games in 18 months. What was to occur, is captured by the phenomenon called “Choking”; the Vancouver Canucks were eliminated in the first round (4-1 in the best of 7 game series) by the Los Angeles Kings. We are amazed and shocked to see elite athletes and performers come up with a failed performance when the stakes for winning are high; and we are frustrated and ashamed when it happens to us (Vealey et al., 2015).
Choking Is Not Just Any Poor Performance
Sport scientists continue to debate what constitutes a choke. Most agree, however, that it is not a random event. It is a dramatic and significant drop in performance, in response to pressure (or stress), during situations that have a high degree of importance to the performer (Meagno & Hill, 2013). It can happen for individual athletes or a team. Essentially, choke performances occur when the athlete feels stress, perceives that stress to be negative to her performance, and because of the stress screws up. Contrary to John McEnroe’s statement in 1984, not all athletes choke when under pressure. Sport scientists have been able to identify the key brain processes and personality characteristics that make some athletes more susceptible to a choke performance. Sport scientists also have identified key strategies that athletes should use to avoid choking, and/or manage choking episodes to minimize the damage.
Who Is Most Likely To Choke?
Two key characteristics have been identified leading some athletes to choke more than others (Beilock, 2010). First, some athletes are more prone to worry than others. These athletes worry about the race or game, who will be their opponent, how good the opponent will be, what the weather will be, the consequences of their failed performance for a successful outcome, what others will think about them, and so on. Second, some athletes are more likely to overthink their performances when it counts most. These athletes tend to be highly self-conscious.
"If you trust your nerve as well as your skill, you are capable of a lot more than you can image" - Debi Thomas, Olympic Figure Skater
To Prevent (Or Avoid) A Choke Performance Athletes Can MAPP It
Robin Vealey and her colleagues use the acronym MAPP to describe the Mental And Physical Preparation strategies that athletes can use to manage their pre-performance worry and thinking.
Practice under stress. Beilock (2010) states that practicing under the exact conditions you will face in an important competition is exactly what is needed to perform your best in those circumstances.
Develop pre-performance routines. Pre-performance routines such as a pre-shot routine that a golfer follows before each shot are associated with an increased likelihood of a clutch performance (a significantly better performance when under pressure). Components of an effective performance routine include physiological (such as breathing), psychological (such as imagery and focusing on the target [finish line, goal posts, golf hole, etc.]), and behavioural (such as key trigger words like "flow") components (Hill & Hemmings, 2015).
Build your self-confidence and commitment to your sport performance. Reflect on your commitment and values and why you play your sport. Reflect on how prepared you are by using a journal to document on a regular basis success that you experience in training.
You CAN Control A Choke Episode By Acting On It
The (panic) feeling that one has lost control of performance during an important competition exacerbates a choke episode. Taking control of the worry and overthinking through Accepting, Centering, and Trust strategies will restrict the degree of failure to the performance. Just like sport technical skills, the mental skills need to be developed (practiced!), so that the athlete can execute (it) when required.
Accept. Begin by recognizing that performance has failed and you are experiencing thoughts and emotions related to that event. It is uncomfortable, but you CAN manage your feelings and thoughts, and in response, turn your performance around.
Center. Physically and mentally exude poise and control (even if you are just “faking it”.) Use rhythmic deep breathing to regulate arousal. Restructure negative thoughts into positive through acknowledging the positive aspects of performance. Direct your attention to the WIN (What is Important Now). That is, what you must do in this moment now to continue your success. Proceed moment-by-moment.
Trust. Don’t slow down and give yourself time to think about the mechanics of your movement. As the Nike ads say “Just do it”. Focus on the outcome of the performance such as where the ball will land in the net, or where the finish line is.
If You Choke, Don’t Dwell
Experiencing a failed performance is difficult emotionally. Sport performers who have experienced a choking episode report feeling crushed, shattered, embarrassed, ashamed, and fearful that the experience will happen again in the future (Vealey et al., 2014). To reduce this emotional trauma, taking the perspective that competitions are opportunities for learning and expanding one’s ability is helpful. Also, it is recommended that athletes use a technique psychologists refer to as cognitive defusion. Specifically, athletes observe their thoughts and feelings to realize that their thoughts and feelings are something they have rather than something that they are. For example, replace the thought "I am a choker" with "I’m having the thought that I am a choker".
"It was a valuable experience to blow a major like that... thinking about [losing the lead] instead of my next shot. So I learned to stay in the present, to stay in the shot you’re playing, because nothing else matters. The only thing I can control is that next shot, and that’s something I had to learn. I think you have to go through those experiences to be able to handle it better." - Rory McIlroy, Golfer (speaking about his choking episode at the 2011 Masters Tournament) (Vealey et al., 2014, p. 65)
Beilock, S. (2010). Choke. Atria:New York.
Hill, D., & Hemmings, B. (2015). A phenomenological exploration of coping responses
associated with choking in sport. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise, and Health, 7(9), 521-538.
Mesagno, C., & Hill, D. M. (2013). Definition of choking in sport: Re-conceptualization and debate. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 44, 267-277.
Vealey, R.S., Low, W., Pierce, S., & Quinones-Paredes, D. (2014). Choking in sport: ACT on it! Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 5, 156-169.