How to Perform Your Best When it Matter Most
Many athletes choke in competition compared to their performance during practice. In my work as a mental game expert, this is a common challenge for athletes. If choking affects an athlete’s sports performance, it’s a mental game issue and not physical.
If athletes can perform well in practice, but can’t take it to the field, course, or court, it’s likely that anxiety, tension, or fear is getting in the way. The ability to take your “practice game” to competition is critical to your success sport.
Athletes choke under pressure all the time. Many big chokes have happened over the years—ones that are high profile. So even the pros choke. For example, Van de Velde had one of the he biggest collapses in a golf. During the 1999 British Open, he had a 3-stroke lead with on the last play of regulation. He only needed a bogey to win the Open, but instead made triple bogey and a finished second.
In 2004, The Yankees blew a 3-0 lead in the ALCS playoffs against Boston. More recently, in 2018, the Virginia Cavaliers (No. 1 seed) lost to UMBC (No. 16 seed) in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And to make their choke look worse, they lost by 20 points to UMBC. So teams and athletes choke all the time.
Why do athletes choke? What are the psychological factors that lead to choking? First, I need to define choking.
Choking is when athletes under perform in competition and lose a big lead on their competition. Athletes who choke don’t play anywhere near their potential that they have showed all season long. Think of the runner that consistently runs a 4:25 mile all season long, but then in a big meet, such as nationals, runs a 4:30 mile.
Fear of failure is the biggest reason athletes choke under pressure. Athletes worry about outcomes. Worrying about results and what might happen if they fail is a big source of pressure for athletes. I find that many of my mental coaching students worry too much about outcomes related to what other might think about them. For example, they fear feeling embarrassed or letting down teammates if they make a game-ending mistake.
For example, golfers avoid getting judged or ridiculed for missing a short putt on the 18th hole to win a tournament. In the 2004 Master, Scott Hoch missed a two-footer that would have won him a green jacket. What started his outcome thinking? It was as simple as a fan yelling that he needed just two pars to win. Hoch said: “It took my mind off what I had been doing.” In the playoff with Faldo, he needed to make a short putt to win. Hoch said: “I was thinking of other things—like, ‘Okay, finally I’m going to win a major’—instead of thinking about the putt.” Good example of outcome thinking leading to a poor focus.
A football kicker doesn’t want to choke a game-winning field goal kick, which happened to Scott Norwood of the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl. When you worry too much about the outcome of the kick, missing or making, between winning or losing the game, you more likely to choke. Many athletes don’t want to disappoint their teammates, let down or coach, or not make their parents proud. They worry about the consequence of failing and what that means for them in a broader perspective.
What Does the Research Say About Choking?
Researches in psychology have discovered that athletes who choke under pressure don’t perform to their potential they have shown in other less stressful situations. How does the mind get in the way of athletes’ performance under pressure? Most athletes I work with perform tentatively, safe, controlled, and try not to make mistakes.
Performing safe leads athletes to over control their performance and thus their performance feels tight and lacks fluidity or flow. Under pressure, athletes default to over-control, which they think helps them achieve the desired result. Over control is the same concept as over thinking one’s performance.
My theory about pressure and fear of failure leading to over thinking was recently confirmed by a cognitive psychologist named Sian Leah Beilock. Her team wanted to understand why athletes choke under pressure. They also want to find out how athletes can avoid choking. She discovered that athletes under pressure will “intensely focus on the details of what they’re doing.” A batter, for example, might focus more on how to time the pitch, stance, how to swing correctly, or think more about how to swing the bat.
However, Beilock suggests that athletes will perform much better under pressure when they performance in on “autopilot” or void of conscious controlling. This is the same concept that Tim Gallwey puts forth in his book, The Inner Game of Tennis—so this is not a new or groundbreaking idea. He says athletes get in the way of their own performance by too much self-coaching and over thinking a skill. He suggests that athletes perform better then they “suspend” conscious thinking and rely on what they intuitively know already.
“We often get in our own way. Precisely because our worries cause us to concentrate too much. We pay too much attention to what we are doing. When we are concerned about doing our best, we often try and control aspects of what we are doing that are best left on autopilot, outside conscious awareness, and as a result, we mess up,” Beilock said in her TED talk about why people choke under pressure.
In addition, athletes spend the most of their time in practice honing their skills to improve for competition. They don’t have a ton of experience managing themselves in competition under pressure. They fail to practice under competitive circumstances. “Rarely do we practice under the conditions we perform in. When all eyes are on us, we sometimes flub our performance,” says Beilock. You have to “learn how to overcome your limits when it matters most.”
When in the zone, athletes are able to react intuitively based on their practice–they can let it happen instead of force it to happen. But when athletes are afraid to fail or disappoint others, it’s hard to let go and just trust in their skills. This leads to worrying about making mistakes, playing tentatively and safe during competition.
How to Perform Your Best When It Matters Most
1. Athletes should close the gap between practice and competitive environment. Becoming more familiar or used to the feelings athletes experience in competition can help them succeed under pressure. “Closing the gap between training and competition can help us get used to the feeling at all eyes are on us. Getting used to the type of situations you’re going to perform under really helps,” says Beilock. I always say that competition is a “closed book test” where athletes must now rely on what they have already learned.
2. Learn how to manage doubts and anxiety-provoking thoughts. Pregame anxiety and doubts can lead athletes to under perform in competition. Worries about failing and doubts about performing well need to be kept in check when you compete. One method Beilock suggest to do this is “download” these thoughts from your mind by writing them down prior to competition. “Journaling or getting our thoughts down on paper can make it less likely they will pop up in competition” she said.
3. Parents and coaches can influence athletes’ choking in competition. According to Beilock, Anxiety can be contagious and rub off on athletes. When parents and coaches are anxious about their ability or others—they model anxiety—athletes mimic this anxiety response to pressure. This means that coaches and parents need to model composure and calmness when athletes compete—on and off the field.
Legendary coach, John Wooden, offered some tips for coaches. “If you’ve done your job as a coach, you shouldn’t have to jump up and down and work for all that attention,” Wooden said. “If you’re the teacher, the game is the test and you never see teachers running around the classroom during the test. They shouldn’t have to.”
4. Learn how to overcome the underlying fear. In my work with athletes, I find that most anxiety and worry is driven by athletes’ fear of failure. Often this fear of failure is based on a concept called social approval. Athletes worry too much about how others will react to their performance. “When all eyes are on us” as Beilock suggest. And athletes want to perform up to what they think others expect of them. Thus, athletes must learn to manage their thinking about what others might think about them. Athletes have to stop “mind reading” or making assumptions and instead focus on the facts (be more rational).
5. Athletes need to manage the high or strict expectations they place on themselves. Expectations equal pressure for athletes. Athletes often have unrealistic or perfectionist-like expectations that sabotage their ability to perform freely and intuitively in competition. In the attempt to reach their standards, they focus on outcomes, stats, and living up to others’ expectations instead of their performance. Thus, athletes need to let go of strict expectations and instead focus on the process of performing one step or one play at a time.
Note: Peak Performance Sports, LLC helps athletes overcome choking in competition with one-on-one mental game coaching. Learn how to perform your best when it matters most with sports psychology coaching: