Choking In Sport

Sport psychologist Gareth J. Mole looks at the main reasons why many athletes can easily perform in training but struggle on competition day.

Choking in sport is basically any decrease in performance due to pressure or psychological factors

What Exactly is Choking in Sport?

Choking is one of those interesting terms which is commonly associated with sport psychology but not so common in the scientific literature. In other words it was first used colloquially to describe ‘falling apart under the pressure of competition’. Since then it seems to have ‘stuck’ as the term used most often to describe mental disintegration.

In this 2013 journal article choking is defined as follows:

In sport, choking under pressure is a negative athletic experience that may have psychologically damaging effects. The media recognises that choking is a dramatic drop in performance, whereas researchers have labeled choking as any decrease in performance under pressure. This discrepancy between the media’s and researchers’ perception of choking leads to ambiguity among terms and confusion among researchers, applied practitioners, and the general public.

As a practising sport psychologist I typically don’t use the words choke or choking at all. I prefer to describe the same challenge in a little more details. For example, underperforming in competition due to pressure. Or maybe due to poor concentration?

Can You Help? I Keep Choking …

There are literally hundreds of reasons why people contact us here at Condor Performance. One of the most common, however, is the athlete/performer who excels in practice situations but struggles to reach anywhere near this level during actual competitions. Most of the time they’ll refer to this as choking. “I keep choking” or “I am a choker”.

It’s worth mentioning that there is always a risk when writing about the psychological aspects anything of oversimplifying matters. This is certainly the case here. Be aware of this when I suggest that although there are potentially hundreds of causes of choking most can be attributed to one or a combination of the below.

  • a practice environment that is mentally far too easy (for that person)
  • a competition mindset that is far too taxing (for that person)
  • the perfect storm – a combination of both of the above

And In This Lies The Solution

Quite simply most of those who are better at executing their skills in practice are better as they are doing so in a false environment. One where more often than not there are little or no consequences involved. Go to any golf driving range in the world and you’ll see dozens of golfers (if we can call them that) smashing balls into the distance without caring about where they end up. Take the same golfers and plonk them onto the first tee with three other golfers watching and see how suddenly smashing this particular ball into the distance makes them tighten up and duck hook it straight out of bounds.

Even those who practice smart and try to replicate the mental demands of competition in their preparation often struggle as they tend to fall short of being able to mimic feelings of extreme pressure. The result is that they then have to try and execute their skills in competition whilst experiencing feeling like extreme nerves or stress that were not there during practice. To add insult to injury, they then fuse with these feelings unaware that feelings and actions can be separated.

There are a number of tried and tested ways around. Although reading this blog should never take the place of working 1-on-1 with a qualified sport psychologist the below might be enough to at least get the ball rolling.

1. Make Your Practice Mentally Harder

By harder we mean mentally harder not physically harder. The easiest way to try and do this is by replicating situations that you don’t like or that you find hard. For example, you might prefer to practice in the morning so you intentionally switch some practice sessions to the afternoon. Or you might enjoy practising with others so you do more and more training alone. To get the sweet-spot is not easy. You’re looking for the practice session(s) to be psychologically demanding but not too demanding. A great analogy for this is weight training. If the weights are too light then not much will happen. If they are too heavy they might cause injury and long term harm. It’s the same with mental demands. Too little means no growth, too much means damage. British sport psychologist Dan Abrahams refers to this as stretch and support. Too much and too little stretch are what we’re trying to avoid here. If you are not confident at being able to create your own sweet-spot mentally harder practice session(s) then please contact us here and so we can lend you a hand.

2. Make Your Competition As Relaxed As Possible

Is it possible for an athlete to be too relaxed whilst competing? Not really (don’t confuse tiredness with being relaxed) so we suggest you do what the great Usain Bolt used to do. He only “worked” on things in training. This freed up his competitions to just exist, enjoy himself and let his training express itself without a worried mind getting in the way. In particular, he didn’t worry about being worried. Easier said than done many might say. I often use the analogy of driving a car (apologies to our younger readers). Manoeuvring a vehicle around safely is a difficult motor skill with huge consequences if you get it wrong. Yet, most of us (who drive) do a great job of trusting our muscle memory. We quickly get to a level of expertise behind the wheel were we don’t actually have to try hard to drive well, we just do. What if you approached sporting contests in the same way? Arrive, ready, relax, trust your training.

3. Use Performance Routines

Action-only pre-performance routines can be a great way to keep you grounded at certain key moments both in practice and during competitions. The reason they work so well is that they’re built using the most influenceable aspect of performance – present actions. This means they should remain both easy to do and consistent regardless of the thoughts and emotions of the current situations. You didn’t really think that Rafa Nadel actually sweated that much did you? Rafa’s use of the towel is a great example of a mentally astute athlete using the action of wiping as a reset between points.

If you’d like to read a lot more about routines then you can read this blog or this one. And as always, please use the space below to let us know your thoughts and/or questions on the topic of Choking in Sport.

Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.

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