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Preventing Choking on the Court
by Karlene Sugarman, M.A.
Sports Psychology Consultant

In sports things don't always go as planned and there are glitches that need to be dealt with. One of those glitches in tennis is choking. Think about it: Have you ever choked at a game? Left your skills at practice? Lost your focus after making an error? I'm sure every one of you can answer yes to at least one of these questions. If you play sports you have most likely choked at one time or another. Rod Laver said, "Maybe it won't be any consolation, but you ought to know, I've choked, still do sometimes ... And I've never met anybody who hasn't." I'm sure you can ask any athlete from high school to the pros and they'll say the same thing. No one is going to be perfect all of the time.

Coaches and players pose the same question - why do players choke? And, how can it be avoided? The bigger question is how can athletes stay relaxed, focused, and mentally tough from practice all the way to competition - which is the antithesis to choking. We can't eliminate choking all together, but we can reduce the tendency for this to happen.

Choking stems from your need for psychological safety. The more threatening a competitive event is to your psychological safety, the more stressful and disruptive the situation will seem. Although, there are times when choking stems from poor preparation and lack of self-confidence. Some may try to make excuses, and attribute it to lack of effort in a particular situation or something external.

Choking starts out as a cognitive problem and ends up a physical one, and thus negatively effects performance. Choking begins with negative self-talk and fear. It is the interpretation of a task as threatening, or a situation as extremely important, which causes feelings of tension and anxiety, both of which distract you from the task at hand and therefore impede performance. The key word is interpretation, because in actuality, the situation isn't making you tense, you are making yourself tense. Believe it or not, anxiety doesn't exist outside of your own head. You start questioning your ability to play well. All these negative thoughts begin snowballing and pretty soon you're thinking about consequences, your next shot, just a whirlwind of thoughts that can't seem to be stopped.

Choking is a decrease in performance due to too much perceived stress. You hear all the time how at the big competitions players choke. Mental stress rears its ugly head under the guise of physical tension. It can also be magnified if you feel that you play for approval of others, thus thinking that a bad performance would result in loss of approval. It all comes down to how you view situations Don't see certain situation as pressure situations, view them as "just taking care of business." How you react in clutch situations will be a result of your perception and preparation. You need to interpret the situation as an opportunity to succeed, rather than a chance to fail.

Then comes the physical consequences. You are so worried, unfocused and physically tense that there is no way you can let your natural instincts take over and be fluid in your movements. You tend to grip things tighter, have blurred vision, and fatigue prematurely because your breathing is short, rapid and shallow. As breathing gets shallower and shallower you then begin to literally "choke." The tension causes constricted muscles in the chest and throat, so you can't breath very well. There is no circulation of blood to your limbs. This is due to the fight or flight response, in that by cutting off circulation to your limbs, it will prevent you from bleeding to death. Unfortunately, in sports, this is a negative because it takes away from your ability to have a keen awareness of your body. You are tight and second guessing your every move, overthinking every detail. You become so worried that you just freeze. Thus, you've choked.

The capability to stay focused on the task at hand, without worrying about all the external variables over which you have no control, is the primary goal in achieving peak performance and avoiding choking. Yet it seems athletes spend about 95% of their time worrying about those uncontrollables (i.e., weather, opponents, bad calls, etc.), rather than on the one thing over which you have absolute control 100% of the time -- yourself.

If you lose your focus, you need to remember what it is you are trying to accomplish and move forward from that point. If you find that the negative thoughts are still creeping in, you can use:

  1. Imagery: Take all your negative thoughts and fears and imagine crumpling them up into a ball and then throwing them away. Or, mentally put all those negative thoughts in your bag and zip it up. This way they are no longer a factor. Doing this puts you in control.

  2. Positive self affirmations: If you find yourself saying something negative, reframe it into something positive ("I will do well"). Reframing allows you to change your point of reference. You are what you think. In sports this can be a problem or an opportunity - it's up to you. The higher your confidence, the more that will lower your risk of choking. I can guarantee you, the more you fear choking, the more you'll choke.

If you lose your focus (usually after you've made a mistake), you need to quickly let go of the error and move on. Have a here and now approach. Nothing is more important than what you are doing at that exact moment. Focus only on one thing at a time. Be aware of your optimal arousal level. Too little usually results in decreased alertness and motivation. Too much usually results in you psyching yourself out and makes you a prime candidate for choking.

To deal with the physical consequences of choking, you can do the following:

  1. Circle breathing: Find an arbitrary place to focus on (i.e., place on net, spot on racquet) and take a deep breath slowly through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat this until you feel your body start to relax and your mind is clear. It should only take a couple of deep breaths (if this is something you practice regularly!). Make sure you use the same focal point each time, consistency is the key, it is the mark of a champion.

  2. Narrow your focus: See only your target (i.e., where you're going to serve the ball). This will help keep your focus on what you should be doing rather than what might happen.

As a coach, you need to be aware of putting extra pressure on players during games and key situations. Certain patterns of choking can be perpetuated by the coaches. ("You have to make the next shot"). This type of talk can reinforce the importance of a situation and the player will most likely not respond well.

Choking is something that can be constructively dealt with. It's up to you to not only be positive and control your thoughts, but also to have the self-awareness to know when things aren't going as they should and utilize all your tools and resources to turn the situation around. Reduce your tendency to choke - be prepared!

Adapted from Chapter 14 of Winning the Mental Way, by Karlene Sugarman, M.A. You can obtain a copy of the book by contacting Step Up Publishing at 650-347-0826.

Karlene Sugarman, M.A., received her B.A. from St. Mary's College in 1991 and her M.A. in Sports Psychology from John F. Kennedy University in 1993. She has worked with schools as University of San Francisco, St. Mary's College, UCLA, Cal State Northridge, San Jose State University; as well as many other organizations, clubs and businesses. She is a member of the Association for the Advancement of Sports Psychology (AAASP) and a member of the Sports Science Committee for the U.S. Tennis Association, Nor Cal. She has written articles for magazines such as US Handball, FastPitch World, and US Roller Skating. Karlene resides in California.

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