In Choking/Fears/Slumps and Blocks

The hitter can’t get himself to stay in the batter’s box. No matter what he says to himself or what the coaches tell him, he reflexively bails out every time a pitch comes in. The catcher can’t seem to make a routine throw back to the pitcher. Instead, he either sails the ball way over the hurler’s head or dumps it in the dirt, in front of the mound. The golfer tightens up like a drum on either his chipping or putting and then ends up grossly mishitting even the easiest of shots. The Equestrian is overwhelmed by fear before she goes into the ring and freezes on her horse to the point where she is totally unable to ride to her ability. What is going on here?

As a Peak Performance Consultant, (I am not a psychologist), I have a different take on these problems than Sports Psychologists who tend to work more traditionally. They would say that these kinds of performance problems are a result of an athlete being too nervous or focusing on all of the wrong things both before and/or during the performance. In response, they will teach the struggling athlete how to think more positively, stay calmer under pressure and better control concentration. All too often, these “surface” strategies don’t work. The reason? The roots of the problem do NOT lie in the athlete’s conscious mind. In other words, these problems can NOT be consciously controlled.

These kinds of Repetitive Sports Performance Problems (RSPPs) have their basis in past physically and emotionally upsetting incidents in the athlete’s history. Injuries, scary close calls, emotionally upsetting events like being humiliated by a coach, etc. all contribute to the athlete’s repetitive performance problem. How? They unconsciously accumulate within the athlete’s brain and body, ultimately triggering a state of internal danger within the athlete while he/she is trying to perform. Once this internal danger alarm is sounded, the athlete’s survival reflexes kick in and take over, interfering with his/her performance reflexes.

Let’s take the very clear example of the hitter who can’t get himself to stay in the batter’s box when hitting. This particular athlete had been sturggling unsuccessfully with this problem for over two years! Six months before the problem emerged, this athlete was hit in the face by a pitch. The ball broke the athlete’s cheek bone and put him out of commision for the season. When he returned to baseball, he was overwhelmed with a fear that he was going to get hit again. In response to this fear, he began to step out of the batter’s box, away from the pitch, every time it was thrown. Soon, this athlete found himself stepping away automatically, no matter what he tried to tell himself before the picth was thrown.

Here we see a very direct example of the conflict that is always present in an athlete struggling with a repetitive performance problem between the conditioned reflexes of his/her sport and the automatic survival reflex. In baseball, hitting well is about moving towards the ball with your hands, bat and step. However, because this athlete had been so traumatized by his injury, every time he stepped into the batter’s box, he was consciously and unconsciously reminded of this scary event and the resultant fear triggered the survival reflex of moving away from the ball, i.e. stepping out of the box.

The conscious strategies of repeating positive thoughts to yourself up at the plate or trying to get yourself to stay calm and focus on the ball are easily neutralized by your body’s self-protective, survival reflex. Without working on the underlying cause of the problem, the old upset and the performance problem will continue. It’s like pulling weeds out of the garden but leaving the roots intact. They will always grow back!

Not all past upsetting events can be so clearly and directly linked to the athlete’s RSPPs. Sometimes the past physical and/or emotionally upsetting event may have little to do with the sport. However, the pressure of the performance or having to perform in front of a certain kind of coach or a large crowd triggers the old memory and the internal danger alarm sounds causing the athlete to automatically respond in a self-protective way. Since this powerful survival reflex always is counter to the necessary performance reflex, the athlete’s performance totally falls apart.


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