Why Choking Hurts Athletic Performance

Why Choking Hurts Athletic Performance

No One Wants to be Labeled a “Choker.”

Some athletes use the term “choking” to describe athletes who crumble under pressure.

For example, the basketball player who misses two free throws with seconds left in the game and down by one point.

Or the baseball closer who melts down in the 9th inning and gives up four runs to blow the save.

Or the football kicker who shanks the extra point to tie the game in the fourth quarter.

What is choking? Choking is under performing in pressure moments of a game or competition.

The problem does not lie in your ability to perform. When left unchecked, the issue is that pressure becomes overwhelming and interferes with performing in the moment.

More problematic is when YOU “label” yourself a “choker.”

The reality is the best basketball players have missed free throws late in a game. Most baseball pitchers have had innings when everything seems to unravel. 

Even Hall of Fame kickers have missed extra points late in games.

However, when you label something, you accept it as truth and set the expectation for future results.

Let’s go back to our basketball example. “I am a choker” means “I will probably miss these free throws.” 

Those thoughts create anxiety and bring about images of past missed attempts. When you are anxious, your forearms tighten, which throws off your technique.

Conversely, if you had no expectations going to the free throw line, you would be free to focus on each shot separately. 

You may still feel jitters, but not so much that your mechanics are affected. In this scenario, you didn’t learn to shoot better; you just improved your ability to manage pressure, focus and stay physically relaxed.

The key to performing under pressure is managing nerves or preventing your “nerves” from building to performance-declining anxiety. Learning to reel in your nerves is a valuable mental skill worth developing.

World No. 3 tennis player Jessica Pegula dislikes the word ‘choking.’ Pegula believes that the choker label hurts an athlete’s identity and performance. Pegula views tough losses as an inability to manage nerves when the momentum shifts in a competition.

PEGULA: “Choking? It’s very harsh. It’s a harsh word. I think everyone kind of does to some extent. I think it’s just because you get nervous…I think it’s more of a momentum shift and maybe more nerves and just how you’re kind of handling those nerves.”

When your nerves get out of hand, you panic and lose focus. Athletes perform best when they can stay calm and maintain a sense of objectivity as they compete.

PEGULA: “Some days, there’s no rhyme or reason. Some days you can feel like you’re a little tense, and for some reason, you can feel like maybe the momentum is shifting in a match, and you’re just putting a lot of pressure on yourself to do the right thing. I think maybe instead of thinking clearly, you’re more panicking a little bit instead of trying to think of the big picture.”

In Pegula’s perspective, all athletes can learn to manage their nerves and perform at their peak under pressure.

Knowing you can manage your nerves in any situation will make you feel empowered and confident under any challenging situations.

Since all athletes experience nerves during a competition, it’s important to know how to perform at a high level when you feel the pressure to produce.

When performing your best, what helps you manage your nerves? Are you locked into the moment? Are you fully confident in your skills? Do you play on auto-pilot?

You want to use past performances to help you find the ideal mindset for managing nerves.

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