In Choking/Fears/Slumps and Blocks, Peak Performance Strategies

A common complaint I hear from athletes (and their parents) across many sports is that they get so nervous before big performances that they end up throwing up. I remember working with one swimmer who only used to throw up before her best event. She never lost her lunch before her other races, only “her” best one.

What’s going on here? Is this some kind of new pre-performance ritual that will help you take your performances to new heights? They say that NBA Boston Celtics great Bill Russell used to throw up before every one of his games. Can regularly blowing your lunch help you get all the way to the NBA? Hardly!

Experiencing intense stomach upset, throat constriction or actually throwing up right before you’re about to compete is a symptom of you being “in the red zone” as far as your level of physiological arousal goes. In English all I mean by this is that you are totally “over-amped” or in “bad nervous.” To perform to your potential you need to be relaxed and excited going into your competitions. It’s fine to have a few butterflies bopping around in your stomach. This kind of excitement gets you “up” for the performance and ready to do your best.

However, if your butterflies turn carnivorous on you and start devouring the lining of your stomach, if you are having trouble breathing because your throat has completely closed off and you feel sick to your stomach, then you know that your pre-performance excitement has gotten totally out of control and has turned against you.

What makes this happen?

Athletes who experience intense abdominal pain and/or throw up before competitions do so because they are overly focused on the outcome of their performance. They have made this game, match or race much too important in their mind. As a result, competition is not an enjoyable proposition and is, instead filled with dread because of all that’s at stake in the athletes’ mind. For example, they may be pressuring themselves to perform at a certain level and/or attain a particular performance outcome. They may be too caught up with their opponents’ size, skill level and/or reputation. Frequently their concentration drifts out of control and gets stuck repeatedly reviewing all of the things that they are afraid might happen, what I call the “what if’s.” (i.e. “What if I choke?” “What if I mess up?” “What if I throw up again?” “What if she beats me?”, etc.)

Mentally hanging out in the future in this way right before or during a performance will kill your enjoyment of the sport and send your anxiety level through the roof. Once you start to get anxious, your muscles will tighten and your digestive processes will abruptly stop, giving you a chance to re-experience the “joys” of your last meal, only backwards.

If this description fits you as an athlete then you need to learn to do a better job of controlling your pre-performance concentration. If you can’t do this, then no amount of relaxation techniques will help you calm down. To learn to better control your concentration, you must first become aware of where your pre-game focus is. Without an awareness of the concentration mistakes that you’re currently making, you will be unable to correct them. The key here is to learn to keep your pre-competition focus away from all of the things that you don’t have direct control over. For example, you can’t control your opponent, how well he/she plays, the win/loss outcome of this performance, what others will think or say about you, whether you make mistakes or not, the officiating in the contest, etc. When you focus on things that you can’t control, you will lose your composure and your nervousness will then overwhelm you.

Try to find other, more neutral things to focus on before your competitions. This could be your stretching routine, conversations with friends or teammates that have nothing to do with the upcoming competition, your warm-ups, a short relaxation technique or any other pre-performance ritual you might normally use.


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