Poor Tony
Poor Tony Romo :(

Poor Tony Romo :(

As a competitive athlete, one of the scariest things I ever faced was the uncertainty of how I would perform “under the gun”. Would I rise to the occasion and play my best or would I crack under the pressure and go down in flames? Until you find yourself in a high pressure situation, you can’t know the answer to that question. And, until you’ve been through a number of those circumstances, you can’t be sure if your reaction to the “big game” is just a one-off or a characteristic that defines you.

Being able to lay down my best performance at the biggest moments is what I dreamed of, but I was petrified (to the point of having nightmares nights leading up to big competitions) that I wouldn’t come through and that I would be labelled a “choker” for the remainder of my career (thoughts of Tony Romo dancing in my head).

My first few experiences in big games as a young hockey player were not good. While my nightmares never really came to fruition, my play was less than inspired. With the game on the line, I was not the go to guy. At least not at first. Thankfully, I had some really good coaches that were able to help me build my confidence and work through my big game jitters. They were great people with a lot of patience. Eventually, I was able to figure it out but it took a lot of trial and error. To be honest, it was like 5 or 6 seasons.

Now the hunt and peck method of overcoming choking can work but I wouldn’t highly recommend it. There was a lot of hair pulling and over-stressing, spanning many seasons that could have been avoided had a I (or my coaches) understood the choking process a little better.

First, let me give you the textbook definition of choking in sport (well one of them at least). It is “a critical deterioration in the execution of habitual processes as a result of an elevation in anxiety under perceived pressure, leading to substandard performance (Mesagno, Marchant, & Morris, 2008, p.439).

Okay, so that was a mouthful. In layman’s terms: “you’re usually good but when it really counts, you suck.”

Harsh I know. I also want to point out that it’s very pervasive in agility. Since I’ve been hanging around agility rings I’ve noticed that the word choke is on the tips of many competitors’ tongues.

Now there a number of hypotheses kicking around the sport science literature as to why athletes fall apart in big competitions but they boil down to two things; getting distracted, or over-focussing.

In the case of distractions, choking athletes spend more time worrying about their upcoming performance or ruminating on negative thoughts than they do under normal circumstances. You can also see these athletes watching their opponents or the scoreboard far more frequently than usual. Just think about how often you check your placement in a local trial versus a regional or national. For all cases, precious attentional resources are spent on task irrelevant information ultimately reducing the resources dedicated to laying down a personal best performance.

Over-focussing is one of the effects of competing under pressure. This is the result of an increase in anxiety and arousal that causes an athlete to become more self-aware. This self-awareness, in turn, causes well-learned, automated (subconscious) skills to become reliant on conscious control. Again, this eats away at your limited attentional resources.

A professor of mine shared with me a wonderful example of the difference between automated movement and consciously controlled movement. Here it is: As adults we’ve done many, many, many repetitions of tying our shoelaces (yes, even those of us who started off with velcro shoes). When we go to tie our shoes, we just tie our shoes, period. It’s automatic.

Now imagine that you have a young son or daughter and you want to teach them how to tie their own shoes (not velcro, obviously). How do you explain to them how to do it when “just tie your shoes  like this” won’t cut it. If you haven’t thought about shoe tying much lately (and let’s be serious, who has? ;-)), it’s difficult to remember what your hands are doing when they’re on autopilot.

I have no doubt that when you learned to tie your shoes that you followed clear, distinct steps. When you try to follow those steps now, how well do you tie your shoes? How smooth and quickly are you able to do it. I’m betting that when you break down tying your shoes into those steps (necessary for learning the skill) you are both less fluid and slower than when you just do it. This is essentially what’s happening to athletes who are choking through over-focussing.

We know that choking happens when we get too easily distracted by all the commotion at the big competition   (both externally and internally); or when we are too overwhelmed by the enormity of the occasion that we become so self-aware that our well-oiled team is working more like beginners. So, what can we do about it?

As I started off with, it’s hard to know how you will react until you’ve been through it. Testing yourself and documenting your performance with a sport journal is always a good way to start. When it was your moment to shine, what were you thinking? How did you feel? How did you behave? What was the outcome?

Making sure that we stay focussed on the things that matter to our performance is the key to success in these situations. Developing a pre-run routine is one way to get yourself ready and directing your attention to the appropriate cues. This takes some work, but it’s something everyone can do. Also, if you find that you’re over-focussing, using imagery and music to relax can help. There’s even research to support listening to music while focussing on song lyrics to help combat over-focussing.

I’m hoping you’ll give these suggestions a try. I know that worrying about choking and feeling that you can never pull it together when it counts most, takes the fun out of sport. However, I also know that those feelings and the lack of confidence that comes along with it aren’t permanent. I was able to make a change and I’ve seen other athletes make it happen too.

“Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way.”
~ Abraham Lincoln


P.S. Just to keep you updated, we are getting ready to open up the Pre-competition Routines for Big Events online program. We’re putting the finishing touches on some of the course material and working on getting the website up and running. Registration will open next week and the course will start January 21. Can’t wait.  😀

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  1. Chris Spencer
    5 years ago

    Hey John,

    And let’s not forget the overwhelming tunnel vision that can restrict your peripheral vision to the point where you can’t see the hands at your sides! This happened to me while playing a duet with my daughter in a piano recital – I have never felt pressure like that before or since!

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