Choking...and how to avoid it!
What is it?
The occurrence of acute performance failure despite being prepared and striving for superior performance.
What am I seeing when someone chokes?
A rapid deterioration of performance under pressure (external pressure, internal pressure or both) almost always as a consequence of attentional disturbances caused by heightened anxiety.
What might cause this anxiety / stress in the first place?
There are a number of potential factors here: low confidence, poor concentration, lack of role clarity, trait anxiety, self-consciousness, skill level...
Ok I have low confidence which means I’m not sure I can do this. So I’m anxious! What actually happens then? A bit of science – two theories: distraction theory and self-focus theory
Distraction theory suggest that under conditions perceived as stressful, an athlete’s attentional capacity will be overloaded by task-irrelevant factors, such as worry and self- doubt, resulting in worse performance. E.g. ‘Ah, this is a big game, that crowd is noisy, why does it feel like we’re playing away from home, ah I knocked it on’.
Self-focus theory suggests that performance gets worse as a consequence of an athlete perceiving stress and consequently reinvesting too much focus in technical information which has been learned in a step-by-step fashion. This leads to consciously monitoring and/or trying to control a skill, meaning an athlete begins to ‘get in his own way’ and interferes with automatic processes responsible for movement. E.g. ‘Ah, this is a big game, I need to catch this ball, where do my hands go, make sure the fingers are right, should my elbows be bent, I need to let the ball come and not snatch...ah no, I knocked it on’.
Whether people choke because they become distracted or because they suffer with paralysis through analysis depends on individual difference and the type of skill. HOWEVER, the self- focus theory is generally the more widely proven both in research and by athletes anecdotally.
Yeah ok...what I want to know is how can I train or coach a skill so that it is less susceptible to choking? (NOTE: the below strategies are related to learning or improving skill. Working specifically on factors such as confidence, role clarity, understanding what is in your control will also contribute to preventing choking)
1. Promote an external as opposed to an internal focus when improving a skill
This will help prevent choking as it allows for focus to be on the movement effect, letting your body to intuitively find the most efficient method of reaching the desired outcome.
E.g. 1 Sprint mechanics – instructing yourself to ‘drag the turf from under you’ as opposed to ‘heel to butt’ – the outcome movement will look the same, but the movement has been learned in a choke-safe way!
E.g. 2 Feedback to teammate during changing room cricket – ‘hey, you should focus on getting your hands high to low when pulling so you don’t get caught’ is not as choke-safe as ‘hey, when you pull, aggressively take the ball down with the middle of the bat’. Promoting an external focus has also been shown to improve strength training due to more efficient body movement (e.g. when bench pressing, ‘snap the bar to the ceiling’) and in endurance sports due to less awareness of one’s own perception of pain.
2. Try to use analogies as often as possible when learning or coaching technique.
Using analogies means there is no step-by-step instruction of ‘what to do’. Instead you create a visual representation of the task to be executed, with very little reliance on verbal information or rules. This allows you to better problem solve and understand ‘how to do’. This procedural way of learning is far less susceptible to being paralysed through over- thinking, as there aren’t any steps to overthink!
E.g. 1 When chipping around the greens, try using a cue such as ‘Chip like a pendulum moves’ as opposed to ‘weight on the front foot, don’t break wrists, keep same speed’.
E.g. 2 Under the high ball, a cue such as ‘dominate the space, tight cradle’ is more choke-safe than ‘arms close to chest, elbows close together’ despite effectively creating the same outcome movement.
3. Repetition without repetition
Find you’re dwelling on errors in games or making repeat errors? This could be due to the way you train a skill! We think that if we make an error in training (e.g. miss a kick) we need to fix it straight away and do the same kick again. Although it feels like you might be fixing it, you’re unconsciously creating a belief which states ‘when I make mistakes, I have to go back and fix them’. When we then make an error in-game, although we might physically move on, our mind is dwelling and focusing on it because it’s used to being allowed to fix it.*
Practising a skill with subtle variations each time, regardless of outcome success or failure, allows you to create motor skills adept to solving the kind of problems faced in a game. By doing this, and being disciplined in this, you learn to dwell less on skill error in training, put more value in your process and move your focus onto the next action / movement more efficiently. It also fosters trust in your skills, creating the belief ‘when I make mistakes, I continue to trust my skills and what I’m doing’.