How to Stop Choking in Sports

Want to know how to stop choking in sports? Choking is defined by a situation where an individual performs lower than he/she is capable of while under pressure. At first glance, it would seem strange that people would perform worse when the most is on the line and they are often trying their hardest. So how do you stop choking?

Causes of choking:

Choking appears to occur when an individual attempts to consciously control a well-practiced, automatic skill. Complex motor skills are controlled unconsciously by the cerebellum. Consciously controlling these skills shifts control to the slower, more deliberate prefrontal cortex, causing a potential drop in performance.

  • External factors: Choking typically occurs in high pressure situations, where there is an audience and expectations are high. Choking tends to occur in individuals who are anxious, fatigued, are concerned about their ego, and have made similar mistakes in the past (Hill & Shaw 2013).
  • Time to think: Table tennis experts performed worse when balls were fed at a slower pace (presumably giving them more time to think) (Koedijker & Poolton 2011).
  • Internal focus: Studies have shown that external focus (focusing on the effect of your movements i.e. focus on the target) is more effective than internal focus (focus on the mechanics, i.e. focus on a golf club) (Wulf & Prinz 2001). Having an internal focus has been found to increase the likelihood of choking across a variety of sports (Wulf & Prinz 2001). Switching from an external focus to an internal focus (for example if you are in a slump and your coach asks you to focus on your mechanics) has been shown to be especially harmful (Weiss 2011).
  • Coping style: An approach coping style means you actively take in threatening information and try to solve the problem. An avoidant coping style means you avoid stressful information. Approach coping styles have been found to be associated with choking. Avoidant coping styles, in contrast have no negative effect on performance under pressure (Wang & Marchant 2005).

How to decrease choking:

A number of strategies have been shown to be effective in preventing or reducing choking.

  • Approach goals: One study found that avoidance goals (don’t miss the shot) undermined performance more than approach goals (make the shot) under time pressure (Roskes & Elliot 2013). So, focus on setting approach goals.
  • Visualization: Imagining performing the skill (in first-person) has also been shown to protect against choking (Kraietz 2012).
  • Implicit learning: Individuals who learn implicitly (without direct verbal instruction) have been shown to be less susceptible to choking (Masters 1992). Instead of learning via step-by-step verbal instructions: learning via observation, analogy, or instructions that don’t focus on internal mechanics.
  • Practice under pressure: Practicing under mild pressure has been shown to protect against choking in high pressure situations (Oudejans & Pijpers 2010).
  • Routine: Having a pre-performance routine has been shown to reduce the likelihood of choking (Mesagno & Mullane-Grant 2010)
  • Distract yourself: Individuals who were asked to listen to the names of animals and repeat them while they played showed no decline in performance in high pressure situations. (Koedijker & Poolton 2011).
  • External focus: A number of studies have found that focusing on an external target is an effective way to reduce choking. One study found that tennis players who focused on the tennis ball leaving their racquet performed better than those who focused on the ball coming toward them (Koedijker & Poolton 2011). Another experiment found that focusing on the motion of a golf club was more effective than focusing on the target (Wulf & McNevin 2000). Yet, another study found that focusing on strategy was effective (Jackson & Ashford 2006). Experiment with a different external focal points to see what works for you.

Example of a bad strategy: In golf, focus on the technique of your swing. Verbally tell yourself to keep your head down, shorten your swing and follow through.

Example of a good strategy: In golf, imagine performing an ideal swing, go through your pre-shot routine then focus on the motion of the golf club.


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