IN THIS ISSUE:
CHOKING, according to Webster’s Dictionary: “to prevent from breathing by blocking the windpipe or squeezing the throat of; to strangle or suffocate; to be blocked up; be obstructed or to be strained with emotion.” Athletes report this experience of performance-destroying “choking” using the following related descriptions: Extreme tentativeness under competitive pressure; a tightening up of the muscles resulting in an inability to execute the way you’ve been trained; an increase in anxiety or nervousness; a decrease in self-confidence, flooding of consciousness with self-doubts and negative thinking; loss of emotional control, fogging up of the brain and an inability to remember basics; immediate decrease in flexibility all leading to, as they say in Boston, a “wicked awwwful” performance. Depending upon the sport that you play it may be called “laying bricks,” “the yips,” getting the “concrete elbow,” the old “throat constriction,” “gagging,” “crapping the bed,” having a “mental meltdown” or any of the other heartwarming names that have been coined for completely falling apart and embarrassing yourself. Regardless of what you call it, choking always ends up in the same thing: Stealing a “quality” defeat from the closing jaws of victory, thus making a total fool of yourself and leaving yourself with a wonderful, hall-of-shame moment. Choking is every athlete’s worst nightmare. From the pros right down to little leaguers, the thought of being attacked by this horrible mental monster strikes terror into the heart, robs you of your nerve and self-confidence, kills your joy for the sport and tightens up your muscles until they’re non-functional. Choking can instantaneously turn a world class champion into a world class chump, a big leaguer into a bush leaguer, a hero into a goat. Ask New York Jets field goal kicker Doug Brien.
Just one week before, on Saturday, January 8, 2005, Brien was a hero, nailing a 28-yard, game winning field goal against San Diego in overtime to send the Jets into a showdown with the highly favored, 15 – 1 Pittsburgh Steelers. The winner would to get to the AFC Championship Game. However, Pittsburgh and their Rookie quarterback sensation, Ben Roethlisberger faltered and the Jets found themselves in an unlikely position, tied at 17 and in field goal range with just 2:02 left to play in regulation. If Brien gets it done, the Jets pull off perhaps the second greatest playoff upset in their history. Unfortunately, Brien’s 47 yard attempt was into a strong wind. As he hit it and the ball headed straight towards the uprights, he raised his arms in celebration. However, the powerful wind kept pushing the ball off target, down and to the left, down and to the left. By the time the ball had traveled all 47 yards it was way off target, striking the left corner of the uprights and bouncing harmlessly back into the end zone. Brien’s sure kick had gone awry, the difference between hero and goat just mere inches. Now Pittsburgh had the ball with almost two full minutes left. Brien sat down on the bench bumming big time. He had just blown the Jets’ best chance for winning. He vowed to himself that if he got just one more opportunity, he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. He’d hit the ball much harder. His desperation prayer was immediately answered. Roethlisberger suffered a rookie meltdown on the very next play and threw an interception giving the Jets field goal position once again. In less than a minute Brien had been presented with a chance to go from goat back to hero.
Unfortunately, as Brien tried to physically loosen up for this 43 attempt, he was beginning to tighten up mentally. He started to over-think. He began worrying too much about the wind, his last failed attempt and making sure that he didn’t leave this kick short. One of the hallmarks of choking is a tendency to tighten up both mentally and physically and thus try too hard. Even before his foot struck the ball, Brien was immersed in this performance-disruptive head set. He was no longer doing what he normally did before his good kicks. He was no longer on automatic, trusting himself and his skills. At that point we could’ve stuck a fork in Mr Brien because he was well done! His kick didn’t even have a chance. It started off and finished left sending the game into overtime. In less than two minutes he had blown two game winning field goals. He and his team never got another opportunity. Pittsburgh kicker, Jeff Reed nailed the game-winning 33 yarder in OT to send the Jets home for the season. Doug Brien left the game feeling like former Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner. He had the huge monkey of “choker” clinging to his back.
For many athletes choking is as unpredictable as the weather: You never really know when it’s coming or how bad it’s going to be. Choking can make grown men cry. It can instantly humble the all powerful and bring them to their knees. If it happens enough times it can drive you completely out of the sport. It’s a cruel and humiliating affliction and a dread reminder of our vulnerability and humanness as athletes. When it hits you, choking is like that old movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers because that’s exactly what it does to you. It’s as if your body and athletic performance suddenly become possessed by some alien presence. You no longer have control over your thoughts or muscles. Inexplicably you’re playing with two left feet, have never thrown a baseball before in your life, dribble the basketball off your foot, your tennis racquet feels like a dead fish in your hand, your swim stroke is too short and out of sync, and you can’t even seem to walk and chew gum at the same time.
In this special issue of the Mental Toughness Newsletter we will explore the exciting adventures of CHOKE MAN!…………
(Heroic theme music starts and sound-effects increase in volume as the camera slowly pans across a small crowd of adults and children standing on the street corner of a Metropolis, gazing upwards to the sky and pointing in awe). Suddenly several individuals begin to excitedly speak at once as something streaks across the horizon: “Look!” “Up in the sky!” “It’s a bird!” “It’s a plane!” (Deep-voiced announcer) “No!!! It’s CHOKE MAN!” (Increase volume of music) “MORE powerful than a number-one ranking.” (Show CHOKE MAN leading his once, undefeated teammates to a miserable, sub-par performance and their first loss). “Able to lose a 10 point lead in the final 50 seconds….” (Detail CHOKE MAN getting the ball stolen three times, throwing up two consecutive air balls, failing to box out and missing his defensive assignment). “Capable of messing up the easiest of plays….” (Show the soccer ball slowly dribbling through CHOKE MAN’S outstretched hands off a routine shot and rolling into the goal)….. (Reduce music volume and cut to close-up of our hero dressed in a red and blue caped “stupidhero” suit with a huge “C” on his chest)….. “And, who, disguised as TALENTED ATHLETE,” (Show CHOKE MAN morph into a normal looking athlete without the “stupidhero” suit), “fights a never ending battle for shame, frustration and the head case’s way.” (Music crescendo, then close with a shot of our hero standing tall with an appealing look of agony and frustration on his face).
WHY DOES CHOKE MAN CHOKE?
Real cute there Doc! Love the touch of the old Superman metaphor, circa 1954. But what’s the real story here? Why does CHOKE MAN gag? What makes talented, well-conditioned, trained athletes fall apart under pressure? How come I always seem to have my worst games against certain opponents? I mean, what gives with that? How can I be so close to winning and totally fall apart like I do? What makes me feel so awful and nervous when I’m in those pressured situations? How come my arms and legs seem to tighten up in knots at all the wrong times and then go their separate ways?
Believe it or not, choking is not as much of a mystery as you might think. In fact, the “gag reflex” is both predictable and understandable. Not only that, but in some cases it’s directly brought on by the athlete and what he or she is doing mentally. Specifically, what an athlete focuses on going into and during a performance dramatically affects whether that athlete will indeed choke. What this means is both simple and powerful: In many cases, (notalways, mind you, but quite a few), choking is potentially in the athlete’s control. Let me explain:
There are two important and interrelated mental factors that contribute to choking and other performance problems: CONCENTRATION and SELF-TALK/THINKING. Let’s briefly examine both of these and their role in the choking cycle.
CHOKING & CONCENTRATION
The ugly end-product of choking, an embarrassing, disappointing and frustrating performance, is a direct result of a series of interrelated, domino-like events not unlike that old kid’s game “mousetrap” where the steel ball rolls down the chute into the pail, the weight of which flips the seesaw sending the plastic figure flying, which, in turn triggers another event until eventually the mousetrap falls on the plastic mouse. In choking, it’s usually the athlete’s focus of concentration that starts the chain reaction that ultimately ends in a bad performance. The steps in between, before the “trap” comes crashing down on the athlete’s performance are pretty basic: When you focus on the wrong things you end up triggering NEGATIVE SELF-TALK. Negative self-talk erodes your self-confidence and, along with a faulty focus, generates excessive nervousness or anxiety. Anxiety within your system quickly tightens up your muscles and chokes off your breathing. It also steals your ability to think clearly and accurately in the clutch. Since peak performance is directly dependent upon staying loose and relaxed, and since tight muscles and faster, shallower breathing make this impossible, the athlete “chokes” and her performance becomes virtually unrecognizable.
If focus of concentration is the initial trigger of the entire “choke” response, then what specific kind of focus are we really talking about here? What kind of concentration gets athletes into trouble and sets them up for the old gag reflex? Think back to a time in the past when you choked. Think back to a time that is a wonderful representation of this awful, embarrassing affliction. Remember, if you will, a time when you did an amazing job of skillfully ripping a stunning defeat from the closing jaws of victory. Now for my question: What were you focusing on in that performance right before everything seemed to head south? Where specifically was your concentration? What were you thinking about?
Chances are pretty good that in answering my question, you’d say that your concentration was locked on a variation of one of two targets: Going into the big game, match or race, both of these concentration targets involved you being too FOCUSED ON (something related to) THE OUTCOME. First, your concentration may have been on winning or losing, how well you were going to do that day, what would happen if you didn’t, the kind of stats that you wanted to produce, (i.e. how many hits you’d get, points you’d score, the time that you’d go, a tournament, team or higher level competition that you’d qualify for if you had a great outing in this particular performance), how well you needed to do in order to win, etc. In most cases of choking, the athlete loses control of his focus either right before and/or during the performance and allows his concentration to dwell on many of the above, outcome-related targets. I know of no better way to set yourself up for disappointment, heartache and failure than by mentally leaving the NOW and jumping ahead to the future or the outcome. If we want to identify one of the main culprits in choking, then this is one of the primary guilty parties! Having an outcome focus right before and during performance is BAD news for athletes at every level across every sport, no exceptions!
In 1989, pro golfer Scot Hoch found himself over a 16 inch putt with the famous green jacket on the line. If Hoch sinks this mindlessly makable putt he will become the “89” Master’s Champion and make a “little bit” of extra spending money in the process. Point of fact: Golf professionals make a putt of this distance roughly 95% of the time. Heck, I used to routinely make those kinds of putts as a twelve year old playing miniature golf for 25 cents a hole. Now if that’s not big match pressure, I don’t know what is. In a post-tournament interview Hoch revealed that as he lined the putt up and got ready to pull the trigger he had only one thought on his mind: “This is for all the marbles!” Now of course this was indeed true. If he made the putt he would be the winner. However, this is not the kind of focus that you want to have when you’re over a putt like this with The Master’s on the line. Instead, you want to be focusing on staying loose and relaxed, feeling soft hands and watching that little white, dimpled sphere. Thinking about what was at stake is the kind of focus that will send little waves of tension up and down your body. Alas, alack! Poor Scott. He ended up choking away that putt and ultimately losing the tournament.
As you may know, mentally “time traveling” into the future in this way, (which you have to do whenever you begin to entertain the outcome), is a sure-fire way to send your level of nervousness through the roof and your performance straight down the tubes. It is IMPOSSIBLE for you to remain calm and loose when you are focusing on and worried about the outcome. In fact, these two are mutually exclusive. They can never really exist together. An outcome focus always leads you to an unhelpful level of stress and nervousness. If you really want to get a handle on this choking thing, then you have to first learn to discipline yourself to keep your pre and during performance concentration away from outcome related things. What I’m saying here is something that I’ve said numerous times before in previous newsletters. To perform to your potential you must NEVER, EVER take your goals into the competition with you, much less entertain them while you are performing. An example:
In the third and deciding set of the 1993 Wimbledon final, Jana Novotna was in complete control. She had the world’s greatest female player, Steffi Graf against the ropes and was about to deliver the knock-out punch. Serving at 4 games to 1 and leading 40-30, she was 5 points away from the most coveted championship in tennis. She had kept Graf on the defensive the entire third set and seemed invincible as she stepped to the line to serve out the game. On the previous point Novotna had drilled a backhand down the line so hard that Graf could only stand there and watch.
And then for seemingly no logical reason Novotna began to unravel. She inexplicably dumped her first serve into the net, seemed to tighten up on the next one and then double-faulted. Suddenly her reaction time was way off and she badly missed an easy forehand volley on the next point. On break point she dumped an overhead straight into the net to give Graf the game. Instead of a 5 – 1 lead, the score was now 4 – 2. The wheels began to come off. Despite the fact that she still had a lead, Novotna was visibly shaken and not the same player she had been just a few points before. She was suddenly choking big time and couldn’t seem to do anything to help herself stop the horror. Graff easily won her serve in the next game and then Novotna double-faulted three times to give Graff another break and a tie at 4 – 4. It was almost as if someone had flipped a switch and suddenly Jana was a completely different player, totally crumbling under the pressure of centre court Wimbledon. The match was basically over for her. Graf easily won the next game at love to go ahead 5 games to 4. In the 10 th and final game, Novotna was unrecognizable as a professional tennis player. It was a stunning example of choking and an exceedingly painful one to watch. Novotna broke down after the match and sobbed right there on centre court.What happened to Novotna? What caused that switch to flip? How could someone playing that well, suddenly play that badly? Now I wasn’t in her head that day and I didn’t get a chance to chat with her, but all my money bets that Novotna “time-traveled” into the future and thought about the outcome and what she was about to do. When she got ready to serve for the game at 40 – 30 she had to have had a sobering moment of awareness of what she was about to accomplish. She was going to win Wimbledon, the grandest tournament in tennis! It could only have been this outcome awareness that so suddenly flipped the switch on her skills and completely shut her down.
Goals and dreams are all about outcome. Goals live and breathe in the future. Goals are a very necessary and extremely helpful motivational tool. Goals guide us in the right direction. They help us to persevere, especially when the going gets really tough. Goals give us the motivation to pull ourselves up after a fall and keep going. They help us maintain hope despite failure after failure and setback after setback. However, you must always remember that you should only carry your goals with you when you practice and NEVER when you compete! Why? Entertaining outcome goals during pressured competitions will only tend to make your performance too important to you, tighten you up as a result and send your game straight to the outhouse, (do NOT pass GO, do NOT collect $200)!
This is important information for both coaches and parents to take in. As a coach, you can never be consistently successful with your athletes if you coach the outcome. If you stress how big this game is, how important a victory is, or what will happen if the team doesn’t win, then you are inadvertently doing everything in your power to set your athletes up for failure. If you truly care about your players and honestly want them to be as successful as possible, then why would you ever shoot them and yourself in the foot in this way? Similarly, if you are a parent and you do the same, overly focus your son or daughter on the prize, the win, the record, qualifying, getting the high point trophy or achieving all around champion, then you are NOT being helpful to your child. Instead, you are single-handedly sabotaging your son or daughter’s performance. You can have the noblest of intentions, but distracting your child with this kind of outcome focus will NEVER have a happy ending! Are you heavy into heartache and bitter disappointment? Is this what you really want for your child? Do you really want to be responsible for their failure and frustration?
Now let’s briefly get back to your answer to my previous question. If you think back to a past experience of choking, then chances are pretty good that not only were you probably focusing on the outcome, but most likely you were also concentrating on, or worrying about something related to YOUR OPPONENT. Perhaps you were concentrating on his reputation, skill level or size. Maybe you were focusing on how imposing their team looked dressed in all those snazzy new matching warm-ups. You could have been mesmerized by how fast or physical they were. Or you may have simply been over-thinking about all that it would take to beat him and whether that was even in the realm of possibility. In any case, focusing on your competition either before or during a performance will have the very same effect on you that an outcome focus has. It will tighten you up mentally and physically, distract you from the task at hand and playing your own game, and ultimately will undermine your level of self-confidence. In simple terms, concentrating too much on your opponent going into and during a competition is another great strategy for choking. In fact, having an outcome and/or opponent focus comprise the one-two punch behind almost all choking experiences. Focusing on either will end up knocking you and your performance flat on your butt before you even know what hit you!
So coaches, why is it that you think legendary UCLA basketball guru, John Wooden, a.k.a. The Wizard of Westwood, never scouted his opponents? Why is it that he never spent any time or energy on what the competition could or could not do? Truth be told, he sincerely believed that if his team played their own game to the best of their ability, it wouldn’t much matter what UCLA’s opponents did. He trained his athletes to concentrate on themselves and what they had to do. Today, almost the exact opposite happens in so many levels of sport. There is a tremendous coach-generated focus on the competition and their strengths and weaknesses. How do we match up against these guys? Where can they really hurt us? Where can we hurt them? Who do they have that we really have to watch out for?
Is all this information unnecessary? I won’t go that far. I do think it’s important for a team to be adequately prepared for a competition. However, as far as I’m concerned, “adequate preparation” is more about you and your team and less about the competition. The lower level that you compete on, the truer this statement becomes. I also believe that there is far too much emphasis on the opponent and that this becomes a distraction to your team as well as a significant source of unwanted stress. When you think of what causes an athlete or team to get psyched out or intimidated, a mental state that often precedes choking, it always comes down to having your concentration on the competition.
CHOKING AND THINKING (A dynamic duo)
Interview between Dr. G and SA (Super Athlete)
Dr. G: “Yo, SA my good man. Tell me. The last time you had a great performance. The last time you performed out of your mind. You know, when you walked on water and lit up the night with the sheer brilliance of your play. What were you thinking about while you were playing?”
SA (looking confused and bewildered): “Uhhhh….Gee Doc, uhhh….I don’t know.”
Dr. G: “What do you mean you don’t know, SA? How can you not know? Come on, you can do better than that!”
SA: (thinking really hard and trying to form an intelligent response to the brilliant Dr. G’s query), “I mean, I can’t remember exactly what I was thinking Doc. In fact, I’m ashamed to say, now that I think about it, I don’t have a clue!”
Dr. G: “SA, are you trying to tell me that you weren’t thinking at all?”
SA: “You know, Doc. That’s the funny thing. I don’t think I was. In fact, I’m sure of it now. I wasn’t thinking. I was just playing. Heck, the game was so fast and intense that I didn’t even have time to think! But, you know what’s weird? I remember everything about my worst games. I mean I can recall every little painful detail, every bad play I made, everything that I did wrong. Why is that?”Dr. G: “Well, that’s the interesting thing about performance SA. When you play your very best, you’re NOT thinking very much at all. Instead your body is on automatic and relying on muscle memory to execute. That’s why things flow and feel so easy and effortless. However, when you choke or otherwise stink the place out, you remember every embarrassing, frustrating, miserable detail precisely because you were over-thinking. In fact, thinking is hazardous to your performance health as an athlete.”
SA: “Wow Doc, you sure are such a wellspring of useful information.” Dr. G: “Yes, SA. I’m glad that you noticed that. I truly am a legend in my own mind.” Another way for us to understand the mechanism of choking is to examine the role that thinking plays in all athletic performance. In simple terms, there are two parts of the brain that are relevant here: Your conscious mind, (left hemisphere) and your unconscious mind, (right hemisphere). Your conscious mind processes information linearly, using words, logic and analysis. It evaluates input, breaks it down into small pieces and presents that information for review. The conscious mind’s processing takes time and as a consequence it can only handle a few pieces of information simultaneously. Your unconscious, on the other hand, processes information instantaneously using senses, feelings and images. Your unconscious looks at the whole picture and doesn’t break things down into pieces. As a result, your unconscious can process multiple complex things simultaneously. In simple terms your unconscious mind is responsible for all movement, creativity, and instinctual responses. It controls all of the complex movements in athletics; creative _expression in all of the arts; and many of your reactions when you are under stress. In sports, your unconscious mind is frequently referred to as your “muscle memory.”
What does all this mean for performance? Your very best performances are almost completely controlled by your unconscious mind. There is very little conscious thought involved when you are playing to your potential, when you’re in the zone. In these situations your conscious mind takes on a more passive, observing role. It is mostly quiet and only occasionally may offer a simple word or two for fine-tuning. The fact of the matter is that it is impossible for your conscious mind to dictate and control athletic performance. The movements are far too complex and happen too quickly for your conscious mind to be able to keep up with and be of any constructive use. As a consequence, the arena of athletic performance is an area of total incompetence for the conscious mind. Letting your conscious mind run the show when you compete is like turning everything over to a rank beginner!
It’s not like your unconscious mind has no role in sports. On the contrary! It has a very important role during the skill and strategy learning process. When you’re first learning a new move or technique, or changing a bad habit you need the analysis, evaluation and thinking of the conscious mind. In these situations, during practice, it’s perfectly fine and actually important for your conscious mind to be involved.
However, trouble begins when your conscious mind steps out of its’ more passive, observing role and takes on this active, “instructional” role during competition. In fact, this is in essence what happens when an athlete chokes. His conscious mind takes over and tries to actively run the show by coaching, cautioning, cajoling and scolding. This is probably what happened to Jana Novotna in that crucial 6 th game of the deciding set at Wimbledon. Her conscious mind took over, rending her performance virtually unrecognizable. This is because your conscious mind is totally inept and incompetent when it comes to athletic performance. TOTALLY! If you try to think your way through a performance, your muscles will tighten, your timing will be thrown off, your mechanics will break down and, as a result, you will choke.
THE UNDERLYING LAYER OF CHOKING
As I’ve been discussing, faulty concentration and over-thinking are the two main causes of choking, on the surface. That is, on a more conscious level, what you concentrate on and what and how much you think before and during your performances significantly contribute to choking. However, it’s important for you to also understand that the choking problem often times has much deeper roots. Athletes who frequently choke do so for other, more deep-seated reasons. What I am referring to is something I’ve discussed before: MANY, IF NOT ALL REPETITIVE SPORTS PERFORMANCE PROBLEMS (RSPPs) HAVE A FOUNDATION IN PAST PHYSICALLY/EMOTIONALLY UPSETTING EVENTS (i.e. injuries, concussions, emotional upsets like failing in front of a crowd or being humiliated by a coach.
Over the course of your career as an athlete and over the course of your life, you will be exposed to physical and emotional upsets of one kind or another. Just by getting up in the morning you become vulnerable to this inescapable fact of life. Some of the upsets you encounter are significant and memorable while others are more minor and therefore easily forgettable.
For example, wiping out on a skateboard, falling out of a tree, falling off a swing, crashing a bicycle, wiping out in a Giant Slalom or taking a bad fall in the half-pipe, sustaining a concussion from a collision with an opponent, breaking an arm or wrist after falling off the balance beam, spraining an ankle, getting a cut that requires stitches, being involved in a scary car accident and getting whiplash or more seriously injured, swallowing water during a race and being unable to breathe, and tearing the ACL in your right knee on a slide tackle are all just a few examples of the physical upsets that you can be exposed to.
Examples of emotional upsets range from the suffering that comes from the loss of a loved one, to being belittled by a coach in public, watching a teammate or another competitor get seriously injured while performing, experiencing a close call where you just miss serious injury, being cut from a team, having your favorite coach suddenly leave the team, choking in front of a large crowd, or being shamed or humiliated by a parent.
Despite the fact that you may have consciously forgotten a specific upsetting event, doesn’t mean that you are really over it. In fact, many upsets don’t get adequately processed through by the individual. When you look back on a past neutral experience it is simply a memory comprised of various images. This experience does not cause any physical or emotional reaction in you because it has been properly “digested,” or processed through mentally, emotionally and physiologically. In other words, the experience is no longer in your system. However, upsetting events don’t get processed through. Instead they get stuck or frozen in your mind and body exactly how they happened. Regardless of whether your conscious mind has an awareness of this or not, these experiences just sit there in your system. Months and even years later, when you are in a situation that is similar to the original upset, or just simply under pressure, components from that original event, (i.e. images, emotions, physiological reactions like nervousness or anxiety, and negative thinking) get activated and interfere with the present performance. As a result, the athlete starts feeling unsafe inside. This feeling of inner danger triggers the nervous system to automatically click into the self-protective response of FREEZE. This survival response knocks the trained performance skills offline and the athlete suddenly feels like he/she can’t do what they know how to do and they choke!
As I mentioned, sometimes the athlete has a vague notion that something isn’t quite right. Perhaps she complains of those nagging doubts or feelings “in the back of my mind.” Other times the athlete may have more direct insight into what’s making her anxious and fueling her repeated bouts of choking. However, more often times than not, the athlete has no awareness of any underlying upset and may even laugh at the notion that this could actually be part of her present day problem.
FIRST AID FOR CHOKING
Despite the fact that many experiences of choking must be dealt with at this deeper level that I’ve been discussing to get at the real roots of the problem, there are still many things that you can do to help lessen the negative impact of this embarrassing and frustrating performance difficulty. Use these 7 guidelines to help loosen the grip that choking may have on you.STAY IN THE NOW – As discussed, one of the main things that fuels choking, at least on a surface level, is allowing your focus of concentration to drift to the future and the “what if’s.” When your focus “time travels” into the future, your anxiety level will immediately rise. As you get more anxious and fearful, it will be impossible to concentrate on the right things and the resultant muscle tension will tie you in knots, insuring that you’ll continue to choke. Most athletes who have had painful experiences with choking in the past, worry that “IT” will happen again. In doing so, they are unknowingly reliving that embarrassing performance with all the negative thoughts, emotions and physical feelings related to this past experience of choking. As a consequence they set themselves up to choke once more. Focusing on the “what if’s” will insure that your worst fears will indeed happen all over again! To break the choking cycle you must discipline yourself to stay out of the past and future, and away from the “what if’s.” You must learn to recognize whenever your concentration leaves the moment and what you are doing RIGHT NOW, and then you must immediately return your focus to the present. Mastering this “recognize and return” skill of concentration takes patience and practice and is key to weakening the hold that choking may have over you.
KEEP YOUR FOCUS OF CONCENTRATION ON YOU – One of the other main contributors to choking is a worry about what others may think or say about you should you fail, lose, or otherwise fall apart performance-wise. Fear of embarrassment often seems to take up a tremendous amount of air time in the head of the athlete who chokes. Of course, the worry that you might embarrass yourself doesn’t do anything constructive for your present performance. First, it will physically tighten you up. Second, it will completely undermine your self-confidence. Third, it will distract you from concentrating on YOUR job and what YOU are doing. The end result of this nasty trio is another heartwarming experience of choking. To counteract this, you must discipline yourself to keep your focus on YOU and no one else. If your thoughts suddenly veer to what others may think “if”, then you must quickly return your focus back to YOU and what YOU are doing in that moment. Remember, focusing on anyone else but yourself will only keep the choking cycle going strong.
DWELL ON WHAT YOU WANT TO HAPPEN, NOT ON WHAT YOU’RE AFRAID WILL – Athletes who regularly choke have gotten into the habit of thinking about what they’re afraid will happen long before the performance starts. This kind of thinking creates “anticipatory anxiety.” The athlete who worries about what could go wrong is unknowingly visualizing exactly what he doesn’t want to happen. This kind of pre-performance imagery and inadvertent negative mental rehearsal gets him uptight and actually sets him up to fail. Instead, you want to work on trying to “see” what you WANT to have happen long before the competition starts. Imagine things going exactly the way that you’d like them to. Whenever the negative head set pops up, immediately “change the channel” and interchange what you’d like to happen. Remember, if your worst nightmare or fear continues to intrude into your consciousness, your job is to continue to insert what you want instead.
UNDERSTAND THE CHOKING IS NORMAL – Don’t for one minute think that only “head cases” choke. EVERYONE CHOKES regardless of how talented they might be. On the 8 th event of the decathlon, (pole vault), at the 1992 Olympic Trials, defending World Champion and 1996 Olympic gold medalist, Dan O’Brien choked on his third and final attempt at his opening height and was disqualified from the entire competition. As a consequence, the hands-down, gold medal favorite never even made it to the Barcelona Olympics. To date, the biggest example of choking in track and field history. Tennis great Pete Sampras said it the best after beating Patrick Rafter to win his record setting 2000 Wimbledon title, “We all choke.” Sampras was referring to the match’s two decisive tiebreakers, the first of which he lost after double faulting twice, the second of which he won after Rafter made several unforced errors. “This game is a matter of nerves.” Sampras went on, “We were both feeling it. I lost my nerve in the first set. He lost his nerve 4-1 in the second breaker.” So when you do suffer through the experience of choking, please keep in mind that you are in very good company. The best in the world do it too.
BE A GOOD COACH TO YOURSELF – When I choked away my college Conference Tennis Singles title as a sophomore after being just four points away from a decisive victory, my less-than-politically-correct coach derided me for much of our four hour car ride back to campus using colorful words and phrases. He actually made me feel even worse than I already felt, which was pretty bad to begin with. Understand that when you choke, the very last thing that you need from a coach or anyone else for that matter is to be put down. Getting angry with yourself for failing has absolutely no constructive value. Let me repeat: NO CONSTRUCTIVE VALUE! NONE! NADA! ZIPPO! It will NOT make you feel better. It will NOT make you play better next time. It will NOT build your confidence and it will surely NOT motivate you. Furthermore, putting yourself down after a bitter disappointment will distract you from taking away anything constructive from your loss. What you most need from yourself after you fail is forgiveness and understanding. YOU must be able to forgive your failure. YOU must learn to be kind to yourself. YOU must learn to treat yourself with compassion. If you don’t, then I can promise you that the very next time you’re in a pressured situation where there is a chance to choke, you’ll end up making very good use of that chance. You WILL be more likely to choke once again. Be a good coach to yourself. Forgive your failures. It’s fine to be disappointed. Just don’t get in the habit of beating up on yourself.
LEAVE YOUR EXPECTATIONS AT HOME – As I’ve mentioned, maintaining a future, outcome focus going into a competition will make you more vulnerable to choking. Taking your expectations or goals into a performance will put more pressure on you, tighten you up in the process and distract you from the task at hand. Get in the habit of leaving your goals and expectations at home, literally. That is, before those really important competitions, sit down and write out all the goals that you have for yourself or your team. How many points you want to score, the time you want to go, how well you want to play, etc. Write them all down on a piece of paper. You can even put down all the “what if’s”, which are the negative expectations that you’re afraid will happen. Once you’ve written them down, fold the piece of paper up and put it in a drawer, out of sight. Do not take your goals or expectations out and look at them until after the performance is over.
HANDLE YOUR NEGATIVE THINKING WITH LIGHTNESS – Most athletes respond to their own negative thoughts and self-doubts with seriousness and worry. They may go into a competition feeling fine until that little voice of self-doubt rears its’ ugly little head. Then they react as if the voice of the creator has just spoken from on high. They respond as if their own negative thinking was a factual and true predictor of what was to come. The bottom line is that your doubts and negative thoughts are just that: doubts and negative thoughts. They are nothing more than brain wave activity. They do NOT accurately predict what will then follow unless you choose to listen to them and give them more weight then they deserve. All athletes have negative thinking and self-doubts running through their heads at one time or another. In fact, some time the timing of this negativity is at the worst possible moment. You can still perform to your potential with this negativity playing in your head as long as YOU don’t take your self-talk seriously. What do I mean by this? When you hear negative thoughts going on in your head, don’t jump in and engage them. Don’t try to be positive and exchange positive self-talk for the negative. Don’t panic because you’re being negative. Briefly talk to your negative self-talk as if he/she’s an old friend. Use humor and don’t take the words seriously. For example, I’m up at the plate, getting ready to hit in a huge at-bat and the negative self-talk starts, “You’re going to strike out! You’re going to let the team down. You always do this!” Instead of responding by getting freaked, try this; “Thanks for sharing. Good to hear from you. Oh, by the way, I’m kind of in the middle of something right now. Perhaps you might want to get yourself a hot dog and a soft drink and then we can chat later.” And then you immediately return your focus to the task at hand. You can still have the performance of your life even with negative thoughts going on. Stay calm and loose, don’t take the negativity seriously and immediately refocus on the task at hand.
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