Choking Under Pressure — What Exactly Happens to Some Athletes?

22 Apr

Those of you who watched David Ferrer come agonizingly close to pulling off an upset against Andy Murray in the recent Sony Open couldn’t help but wonder what was going through his mind in those last few games of the tennis match.

Ferrer, arguably the 5th best player in the world, is a model of consistency on the tennis court. His speed, accuracy and heart make him a force to be reckoned with against any opponent – his inability to beat the Big Four (Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray) in title matches notwithstanding.

In the finals of the Sony Open, Ferrer crushed a lackluster Murray in the 1st set, 6-2. Murray found his stride in time to win the 2nd set, 6-4. Ferrer took a 6-5 lead in the 3rd set and had a golden opportunity to win it all. In fact, he had a break and match point, only to falter. Finally, in the tiebreaker, Murray decisively put him away.

blogchokingphoto3Many would call it a case of a classic “choke.” It was almost as if the reality suddenly sank in of being on the doorstep of beating one of the Big Four. We’ll never know, of course, what he really was thinking and feeling at those moments. But a subconscious fear of success could have been at work.

We’ve seen similar scenarios play out in so many close games and contests. One athlete or team thrives under pressure, while another wilts. Many of you might remember the New York Yankees leading the Boston Red Sox 3-0 in the 2004 AL Championship Series. Given that no Major League Baseball team has ever fallen to an opponent after leading 3-0 in a best-of-seven series, the Yankees were all but crowned as the AL champion. But Boston rallied in the final four games to win the series.

When a pattern of faltering in pressure situations occurs, the person or team develops a reputation of being a “choker.” The Buffalo Bills are a classic case, losing in four straight Super Bowl appearances (1991 to 1994). The most agonizing of those defeats came in 1991, when kicker Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds to save the Giants’ tenuous 20-19 lead.

So, what exactly happens physically and psychologically when someone chokes?
Sharon Misasi and David Kemler, both professors of exercise science at Southern, say it has to do with psychological pressure (stress) causing feelings of insecurity, muscle tension or autonomic arousal to occur. “When a performer perceives these affects occurring, it often leads to debilitating cognitive and/or motor outcomes,” they say.

“The performer’s scope of thinking diminishes due to the brain’s defenses that push the body into fight, flight and/or play dead mode. Worry and pressure cause the performer to forget or not access the motor programs that he or she has to solve the problem.”
Interestingly, it’s not just fear of failure that can lead to choking. Fear of success is a frequent culprit, as well.

“A performer may be worried (anxiety) about what will happen if they succeed at this level. They may be thinking, ‘What if I am successful? What will be expected of me the next time? Why do I deserve to be successful?’ This form of thinking and feeling can lead to our attention being directed to non-relevant cues, such as noises in the crowd, waving of the pompoms and trash talking. In the case of tennis, the individual performer focuses on the opposing player and not the tennis ball, or in football, the kicker focuses on the linemen or the football and not the uprights.”

What can be done to overcome a choking tendency?

Misasi and Kemler offer a few suggestions:

Practice game-like situations to prepare for the increased stress level that accompanies game day. These types of drills also help increase one’s self-confidence, which is an important step toward overcoming choking.
Keep expectations realistic and put the event in perspective. While predicting knockouts and the rounds that they would occur might have worked for Muhammad Ali, it could wreak havoc with the psychology of someone prone to choking.
In the days before the event, visualize yourself performing well. Visualization has proven to be effective psychological technique for many athletes.
Work with a sports psychologist. Coaches and athletes have varying degrees of knowledge and awareness of the phenomenon of choking. But a good sports psychologist is trained in the subject and can help an athlete overcome this obstacle.

Does anyone have any other tips to prevent choking?

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: