You can see IT, taste IT, almost touch IT! You are right on the doorstep of winning. The victory is all yours…..Then, suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it all seems to fall apart.
For some strange reason you start getting a little more nervous, just a tad more physically tight. Your self-confidence begins to crumble. Your quality of play deterioriates. You start performing defensively and tentatively, so as not to lose. Before you know it, you’ve lost your edge. Your opponent is suddenly very much back in the game, while you’re fading fast! What’s going on here?!
A lot of athletes have gotten themselves into the frustrating habit of stealing victory from the closing jaws of defeat, otherwise known as the dreaded C word: CHOKING! They seem to play loose and relaxed through most of the competition and then, just near the end, when there’s a chance to seal the deal and close out the opponent, they always seem to stumble and fall. Why is that?
Here’s my take on this: If you want to play at your best, then you need to be able to relax and put yourself on automatic. Loose muscles and an automatic, non-thinking approach are crucial keys to peak performance. Athletes who consistently do well in the beginning of their games/matches, yet then fall apart when victory is in sight do so mainly because they are unknowingly changing their mental game at these crucial moments.
In the early parts of the game or match these athletes may be totally focused on the task at hand, one point at a time without worrying at all about the outcome. Because of this focus, they remain calm, loose and confident. Because of this focus there is very little conscious thinking going on. In fact, during these times their minds are usually very quiet.
However, as the important part of the game approaches, when there is an opportunity to finish off strong and win, suddenly these athletes switch their focus from the process of the performance to the outcome. They become conscious that these next few points or plays are really important and could decide that they will win. This immediate shift in concentration away from the NOW and the process, to the FUTURE and the outcome instantly generates physical and mental tension within the athletes. There is an increase in mental activity as they begin to over-think about what’s going on.
Suddenly they have made the next point or play too important in their mind. They have allowed too much to ride on it. As a result, they begin to worry about the “what if’s” and the fact that it could all fall apart. This worry then triggers a chain reaction where increased tension causes more tentative play, which in turn leads to mistakes and an allowing of the opponent to tactically and physically get back in the match. This builds the opponent’s confidence while simultaneously lowering the athlete’s, which in turn, causes even more tension and poorer play.
The problem is that the athlete who steals defeat from the closing jaws of victory makes the mental mistake of inadvertently changing a “winning game.” In other words, what was working, (staying focused on the game, one play at a time, being loose and not thinking about the outcome) is abandoned by the athlete for a focus of concentration that causes tension and tentative play (i.e. “I’m close to winning”).
The main thing you have to learn to do as an athlete to enable yourself to successfully close out your games/matches and clinch that victory is to maintain control of your during-game concentration. As the game reaches a critical point and you find yourself in a position to win, you have to keep your focus on the process of the game, in the NOW, one play, point or shot at a time. If you find your thoughts or focus drifting to the future and the possibility that you might win, your job is to immediately recognize the fact that you’ve lost your focus and to immediately return it to the game and the task at hand. In doing this, you’ll keep yourself calm and maintain that winning game.