Choking Under Pressure in Sports

Football StadiumEarlier this month, Professional Edge talked about the difference between people who handle pressure well and those who tend to choke rather than overcome the pressure. Drawing upon the children’s tales of Humpty Dumpty versus the Little Train that Could, the difference in one’s mental attitude can greatly impact whether or not one overcomes or succumbs to the pressure.

In the sports world, pressure can come from a multitude of sources. It can be external pressure from others or internal, self-inflicted pressure, concern about the future, or fears triggered from the past experiences. Unlike other species, our large, powerful brain allows us to engage in higher, executive functioning (aka, “smart” thinking), which helps us becomes highly successful by thinking about the past or the future.  However, our productivity and success is limited if we are let worry and non-helpful thinking (e.g., negative self-talk, worry, anxiety) take over our mental focus.

One of the most helpful things we can do in stressful, pressure situations is focus on what we “can do” instead of what we cannot. “Can do” behaviors for athletes include:

  • focus on breathing
  • replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk
  • follow the recommended diet and nutritional guidelines
  • get plenty of rest and sleep
  • remember that we all have failed or struggled at some point and it is a sign of learning and growth
  • break down large goals and tasks into smaller ones

We cannot control what others think or do, but we can control how we think they are thinking. Successful individuals perceive others as being helpful and supportive. They do not waste time and energy worrying about how someone else perceives them. We cannot focus on doing our best when we are thinking about what others are thinking, right?

Similarly, it is crucial that we maintain our mental sharpness when engaging in behaviors that are automatic. When we have put in the appropriate amount of time and practice into non-competitive situations, we can have trust in ourselves that we will be successful in competition. Practice needs to include exercising our ability to focus and concentrate while filtering out noise. Otherwise, we are placing ourselves at risk of being distracted and unfocused during competition. We want to experience a sense of “flow”, clarity, and confidence. Without adequate mental preparation, competition often feels more like riding a bike for the very first time – scary, wobbly, and uncertain about the outcome.