Performing Well Under Pressure

Prevent Choking on High Pressure Games

Keep Focus and Stay in the Moment

What causes choking? Why do some athletes choke while other athletes rise to the occasion?

No athlete likes to hear the word “choking,” let alone admit it. Yet, some athletes believe they “always choke” when the pressure is on.

Choking is rooted in three sources:

1. Self-talk – If you tell yourself you will choke over and over or refer to yourself as a choker, guess what will happen when the pressure is on? You got it. You will probably choke. Self-talk is powerful. Think of self-talk as a directive. Your self-talk tells you what to do, how to do it, and when to do it.

For example, “In the last minutes of a close basketball game (when to do it), I always choke (what to do) and shoot the ball short (how to do it).”

Giving yourself a different message will give you a different result. “When my legs get tired, make sure I get my legs into the shot and follow-through.” In games, it’s ideal for shortening this message by using cue words, legs, follow-through.

2. Perspective – When you view pressure situations as an opportunity to fail or embarrass yourself, you will tense up and play it safe. In the ninth inning of a tied baseball game, if you see yourself as a “choker,” you will try not to strike out instead of swinging the bat and making solid contact.

You are more successful when you see challenging situations as a chance to shine and help your team.

3. Focus – Focusing on results, the outcome of a gymnastics routine, missing a game winning shot, losing a set in a tennis match build anxiety. Anxiety negatively affects your physiology and mechanics, causing you to choke.

Staying immersed in what you are doing keeps your attention in the moment, freeing your mind and body just to perform.

Choking or performing under pressure directly results from your perspective, focus, and self-messaging, all of which are under your control.

For example, the Boston Celtics have blown leads of at least 19 points four times in the 2021-22 season, which is the most in the NBA.

A recent 108-105 loss to the New York Knicks, after having a 25-point lead put the Celtics just outside of the playoff picture.

Celtics head coach Ime Udoka talked about how his team needs to respond to adversity:

UDOKA: “It’s guys getting rattled when it’s not the end of the world. You still have a 12-point, comfortable lead, and you gotta end that run. We have to understand time and score, and we need a solid shot and not just get caught up in the game.”

Blowing a big lead is often due to choking or playing it too safe. The fear of unraveling and losing after having a commanding lead causes you to play cautious and back on your heels.

The focus always needs to be on the present moment. When your mind drifts away from the “present time,” under performance or choking will be the result.

Preventing Choking when Under Pressure

One strategy to prevent choking is to reframe how you view pressure games. For top athletes, pressure elevates their game when they use the added intensity to go deeper into the zone. Look at pressure as a challenge to excel, not an opportunity to fail.

Under pressure, the game is the same with the same size court, rink, or field. The only thing that changes is your perspective of the importance of the game!

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