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Video: Want to Avoid Choking Under Pressure?

Choking Under Pressure
Why It Happens and What You Can Do To Avoid It

As the number one singles player at my college, I was four points away from easily winning my first Conference Tennis Championship. I was about to serve for the title and I had dominated the entire match. I was loose, confident and unstoppable. I was to be crowned the best tennis player in our conference…..that is, until they brought out the awards table and set it by the side of the court during our last changeover! Suddenly my entire headset and focus shifted. I started thinking about winning, what that would mean when I did and what my teammates and coaches would say. My excitement level soared through the roof and my thoughts started racing at warp speed! I couldn’t wait for all of this good stuff to happen!

Driven by this intense anticipation, I found myself rushing, forcing my serve and trying too hard. I started making unforced errors. I double faulted twice, flubbed an easy put-away and then lost my serve for the very first time in the entire match. Despite the fact that I was still way ahead, up 6 – 3, and 5 – 3 in the final set, my self-confidence did a disappearing act as my excitement about winning quickly morphed into an intense fear of losing. I suddenly remember a match against this same guy two weeks prior in which he easily beat me! I stopped being aggressive and started playing scared and “not to lose.” My opponent sensed this and it filled him with confidence. For all intents and purposes, the match was over, only I didn’t know it! I was on the slippery downhill slope of CHOKING! Back then I didn’t know how to recover and ended up stealing defeat from the closing jaws of victory, losing in three sets and feeling totally humiliated in the process!

While this wasn’t the first time that I had choked as an athlete, it was by far the most painful one! If you’ve played your sport long enough, then you can probably relate to my experience and have had a few of these “special,” heart-warming moments all of your own. At every level that sports are played, choking is just something that athletes and teams periodically do. If you as an athlete or coach can understand what causes CHOKING, then you are in a position to limit the frequency of this “fun” experience and to minimize it’s performance-disruptive effects.


The experience of choking is actually an interesting one, just as long as it’s not happening to YOU! The athlete’s nervousness suddenly and inexplicably spikes, and, as a result, their muscles tighten and they literally have trouble catching their breath. In the process, they get flooded with self-doubts and negative thinking, both of which erode their self-confidence and distract their focus from the important task at hand. These powerful mental and physiological changes ruin proper mechanics, disrupt timing and sabotage endurance, making peak performance impossible.

On a more conscious level, what causes choking is the athlete’s sudden switch of their focus away from what’s important to two very specific, anxiety generating things: First, the athlete’s concentration leaves the “NOW” of the performance and jumps ahead to the “FUTURE” and the prospects of winning or losing. When your concentration stays in the moment by moment flow of the performance, in the “NOW” on what you’re doing, you will stay calm, composed and perform to your potential. However, the instant that your focus jumps ahead to the future and the outcome, your anxiety level will shoot up into the performance-disrupting “red zone!”

Peak performance is always a product of the your concentration being totally and completely absorbed in the NOW of the performance, allowing you to instinctively react to the proper cues coming at you from within the action. When you focus on what’s in front of you, in the NOW, your instincts, muscle memory and training are able to reflexively and smoothly respond. Trained reactions then dictate your performance, NOT thinking. On the other hand, when you “time travel” either ahead to the FUTURE or jump back to the PAST, these trained reflexes get totally disrupted by your thinking!

For example, if I’m up at the plate and have to face a dominating pitcher, I need to stay calm and focus on the pitcher’s release point and the ball in order to hit to my potential. However, if I’m thinking that this pitcher is so good that they have already signed a full scholarship with a D-I program, then there is no way I’ll be calm enough and properly focused to be able to instinctively pick up the release point and ball in time to hit well.

The second, surface cause of choking has to do with the athlete inadvertently shifting his/her focus away from THEIR game and what THEY are doing to the OPPONENT. When you begin to think about and concentrate on your competitor’s size, speed, strength and skills, you set yourself up to get psyched out and choke. Focusing on what you THINK your opponent has and can do, will undermine your self-confidence, make you anxious and again, distract your concentration from the moment-by-moment flow of the action. You always perform your best when you “play your own game,” or “stay inside yourself!” This means that you have to keep your focus on your strengths, your game plan and what YOU ARE DOING, and NOT on your opponent!

The wrestler who does his best whenever he is aggressive and stays on the offensive his entire match will be successful when his focus stays on what he’s doing and his moves. However, the instant that he starts thinking about his opponent’s strengths and what might happen if his opponent does this move or that one, he stops being aggressive and begins to get nervous.This thinking-fueled anxiety distract him from the important performance cues in front of him and set him up to choke!

On a deeper, more unconscious level, choking is caused by the athlete’s nervous system registering a sense of internal danger and then reflexively clicking into self-protective response. Let me explain. Whenever we experience anything that is physically and/or emotionally upsetting like an injury, embarrassing performance, being humiliated by a coach, seeing someone else get injured, having a very scary close call, etc.) we automatically memorize everything about that experience, (images, emotions, movements, anxiety, negative thinking, etc.). This memory will then stay in our mind and body long after we’ve forgotten the actual event. Later, other upsetting experiences will get “stacked” on top of this first event.

At some point, either when we’re under more performance pressure or we’re in any way reminded of the original upsetting event, components (i.e. images, emotions, physical sensations, anxiety, negative thinking) from the original upset get triggered and begin to bubble up into consciousness. What the athlete becomes aware of is that suddenly he’s feeling tight, anxious and flooded with scary thoughts. When this happens, biology takes over. That is, our nervous system senses danger and automatically clicks into self-protective response. Without thinking, we either respond with fight/flight, or if that’s not possible, we fall back to the default survival response, the freeze response.

Many athletes who choke under pressure do so because they are unknowingly stuck in this freeze response. The performance situation that they find themselves in, unconsciously triggers this internal danger state and they automatically click into freeze. We lose our skills and the ability to perform at a high level because our survival reflexes knock our trained trained performance skills offline.

This is what happens to the 26 year old golfer who is standing over a 7 foot putt on the third hole of the final day of a tournament that she has been leading the entire way. Somehow the pressure of the moment triggers a state of panic that seemingly comes out of nowhere! Suddenly she can’t feel her hands anymore and that great feel she’s had all week vanishes and is replaced by numbness and muscle tightness. Her mind gets flooded by negatives as it runs a “lowlight” video of past tournaments in which she’s choked. What she is totally unaware of at the time are the unconscious roots of this problem, a father who pushed her mercilessly and angrily withdrew his love each and every time that she failed. Her nervous system responds to the pressure of the moment as if she’s still a 9 year old trying desperately to please her dad and being overwhelmed by the impossibility of this task. The result: IMMOBILITY!

“Your Most Powerful Weapon Against Choking”


To limit the performance-disrupting effects of choking, there are several things that you can do which will address those instances where choking was caused by more conscious mental mistakes. As I mentioned, these mental mistakes relate to your concentration both before and during a performance. When you allow your focus to leave the NOW and “TIME TRAVEL,” then you are more vulnerable to choking. Similarly, when you let your concentration leave what YOU are doing and drift to OTHERS, (teammates, coaches and especially your competitors), you will get anxious, lose your confidence and fall apart performance-wise. However, if you can learn to become much more aware of where you put your focus, then you are in a much better position to avoid choking and perform to your potential.

AWARENESS is one of the very first steps in developing mental toughness and learning to control your concentration! First, you must become aware whenever your concentration leaves what you’re doing in the action and goes to thinking. You must become aware when your focus leaves the NOW and goes either to the past or the future, (focusing in the past or future means that you’re really thinking about them!). You must become aware when your focus leaves what YOU are doing, your job and goes to SOMEONE ELSE, (focusing on an opponent or anyone else also involves thinking about them!). Remember thinking feeds choking. When you allow your attention to stay with your thoughts, you will be vulnerable to choking!

Please understand that I am not suggesting here that you “STOP THINKING!” Not only is that a silly prescription, IT’S IMPOSSIBLE! You can’t NOT THINK! So forget about controlling your thoughts. The issue here is to be aware when you’re thinking and quickly return your focus to what you are DOING/FEELING in the action! This is the second step in developing mental toughness and controlling your concentration: You must quickly return your focus to the task at hand, what YOU are doing, in the NOW! Effective concentration involves an awareness of when your focus has drifted and an immediate return of that focus to the right mental target, (the NOW, FEEL, or YOU). You are much more vulnerable to choking when you allow your focus to drift and you don’t immediately come back! It’s the break in concentration that we don’t catch that is the real culprit here in the cause of choking! This is exactly what happened to me in my tennis match. I jumped ahead to the future and winning, but I did not bring my focus back to the NOW and what I was doing!

To get good at this “recognize and return” skill, you must practice it daily. You must work on it whenever you train. Your job is to get so good at immediately noticing the drifting and quickly bringing yourself back, that you can do it automatically, without any thought!

If you make a concerted effort to master this mental skill of concentration, if you get really good at recognizing whenever your focus drifts to thinking and the past, future or your opponent, if you get proficient at then quickly returning your focus to the right things AND you still have problems getting excessively nervous and choking, then chances are pretty good that your problem is caused by these past upsets we were discussing above! If this is the case, then conscious mental skills by themselves won’t be sufficient in helping you calm down and turn the problem around. Your nervousness and over-thinking are being fueled by your nervous system’s self-protective reflex of freeze hijacking your trained performance skills.

What needs to happen in these cases is that you have to have some help calming your nervous system down so that you can come out of freeze. If you haven’t already, you might want to read more about this and get some self-help suggestions from my latest book, “This Is Your Brain On Sports – Beating Blocks, Slumps and Performance Anxiety for Good!


“I’m a junior in high school and I play varsity basketball. I’m partway through my season and I’m in a panic. This is a really big year for me because I’m hoping to get looked at by some good colleges and maybe even get a scholarship. My dream is to play DI but I’m wrecking everything! Every high school game so far I have sucked! I can’t get the ball to drop and I’m so nervous I’m going to make mistakes that I’m afraid to do anything. When I practice with my AAU team I play great. The minute I step on the court for a high school game I get nervous and choke. I don’t get it! Last year I played fine! HELP, I’m freaking out!”

DR. G.

What is going on with you happens with a lot of high school juniors and seniors and demonstrates one of the biggest cause of choking and out-of-control nervousness there is! Making a season, game, quarter or shot too important. Choking is most often caused by allowing your concentration to go into the future and the “outcome” of what your doing. In your case, your season. i.e., “This is a really important season and I have to make sure that I play really well so that I can impress the college scouts.” The problem with this outcome focus is that you are now making your games too important. In the process, you’re putting undo pressure on yourself. When you do that, you start getting nervous, get flooded with negative thinking and doubts and then start playing badly. Unfortunately when this happens for most athletes, they panic and then put even MORE PRESSURE on themselves. i.e. “Oh My God. I have to make up for that mistake/missed shot/bad game! I have to play better! This is important. NOW This REALLY counts!” Unfortunately this extra pressure that you put on yourself to play better is like throwing gasoline on a fire that you’re trying to extinguish! It will soon get out of control!

What you need to start doing is keeping your focus of concentration on your games, one game at a time. This does not mean telling yourself you need to score 15 points and grab 10 rebounds. It means that within your game, your concentration needs to be on one play at a time. If you throw up an air ball. Let it go and get your focus back in the NOW on this next play. If you dribble the ball off your foot, LET IT GO and return your focus to playing good D!

Choking is most often times cause by making your game too important. When you do this, things get too serious and you stop having fun. When fun leaves your game, so too will all of your skills and well trained muscle memory! To beat choking and play to your abilities you have to stay calm and composed before and during your games. To pull that off, you have to discipline yourself to keep your focus of concentration in the NOW and away from the FUTURE. If you find that you have a thought about “what if….” or the college coaches, then quickly bring your concentration back to the NOW and what you’re doing!

14 Steps to Mental Toughness

14 STEPS TO MENTAL TOUGHNESS will systematically help you resolve those mental problems that keep you from taking your game to that next level. Through the use of exercises, motivational and teaching stories and proven mental toughness strategies you’ll learn to recognize the causes of choking and poor performance and quickly overcome them.


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