Performance Choking

Performance Choking” An abstract concept… yet a concrete reality when it happens.

Why is it that big leads and strong advantages all seem to crumble and disappear under pressure sometimes?

Choking is one of the biggest fears for many athletes and sports teams and is often perceived as worse than losing. No player or team is immune to it; even great champions have fallen victim to choking and we all know the disappointment when this happens when we are reminded of our own South African Cricket team being labelled as “Chokers”

“Choking in sport can be defined as the failure of an individual athlete or team to win a game or tournament when the player or team had been strongly favored to win or had squandered a large lead in the late stages of the event”. – Wikipedia

“choking is suboptimal performance, not just poor performance. It is performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past. Sian Beilock

You may have wondered what causes performance choking and what can be done when it happens?

 Performance choking is caused by an ego that is afraid of looking bad. You must learn to leave your ego outside of your event. Gonzalez

Get you ego out the way! Have you ever considered that the reason why choking is so devastating is because it can strike at any time and you cannot simply “train harder” to prevent it. “Choking” is essentially caused by focusing on the outcome and being concerned about looking bad. “Choking” can also be described as a physical response that is triggered by the psychological threat to the ego.

“Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart.” Malcolm Gladwell

However it is important to remember that although the physical symptoms of “panicking” and “choking” may seem similar, it has a different cause and it is important to note that “choking” is more than just having a fear of failure.  When panicking, stress can erase short term memory. Many people recall in times of panic that they could not think properly, and rely on their instincts. Experienced people fare better in moments of panic, as they can calmly rely on their long term memory to guide them through the skill, which is why panicking can be less detrimental at a high performance level, than “choking”. Choking on the other hand is more about "overthinking".

Fear is in your head and “choking” happens when performance is actually affected by the nervousness, stress, and worries about looking bad if things go wrong. It’s very different from the fear of facing a dangerous or life-threatening situation. These are subtle distinctions, but result in big differences in how the brain to act.  When outside stresses shift attention, "the pre-frontal cortex stops working the way it should and we focus on aspects of what we are doing that should be out of consciousness. (Beilock) That's right we start to overthink our performance.

"Choking isn't just poor performance, it is performing worse than you are capable of because there is a lot on the line. While it doesn't always happen on a world stage, nor in the sporting arena, choking is remarkably common basically anywhere the stakes are high and we don't want to fail" University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, author of Choke.

Understanding how explicit and implicit learning influences our ability to perform under pressure becomes crucial. Explicit learning happens when you first learn a new skill or technique and you break it down into the basic elements consciously and with awareness. In contrast, implicit learning can be seen as learning outside awareness. High Performance Athletes have exceptionally developed implicit learning systems.

Why is this important you may wonder. In highly stressful competitive situations, the brain can become so obsessed to win that it reverts to depending on the explicit system to complete the skill. As many athletes have not depended on the explicit system since learning their skills initially, they have essentially regressed to a beginner status. Choking is therefor essentially caused by reverting back to the explicit system by overthinking and holding on to the outcome.

Stop overthinking it and just let your body do!

Sport is ultimately a mental challenge and as the physical requirements, to perform at a higher level become more demanding, the mental side of performance increases even more. What distinguishes excellence is often not the physical ability or skills level, but the mental ability to perform when it counts.

How to deal with “Performance Choking”.

  1. Whatever you do, do not start to focus on detail. This will cause you to overthink your performance. Rather look at the bigger picture and focus on what you want to do than the what you don't want.
  2. Focused breathing helps to bring back control and focus into the present, and to allow your body to calm down and your pre-frontal cortex to work as it should.
  3. You can take back your mind from the control of your ego by using an outside cue or focus point. This can either be a key word that summarized the intended performance, or firing a performance anchor that was setup previously or if possible you could just for a moment walk away.
  4. Creating a performance anchor can be very helpful to activate more resourceful states. This can be done by recalling a positive event and connecting all your sense until an optimal feeling is experienced. This feeling can then be anchored, either with a focus word, touch or image that would be visible. 
  5. Once you understand what causes choking you can shut it down and immediately begin to refocus.


“Champions focus on what they can control. They know that while they can’t always control what takes place during an event, they can always control how they respond.” Gonzalez


Bennie Sportmind

Article compiled by Bennie Louw the Sport Mind Coach
Training Your Mind for Sports Performance – Providing training for coaches, managers, parents, high level performers and keen amateurs who wish to learn the techniques to improve their mental approach to sport.

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