Why Do Athletes Choke in Competition?
I think athletes choke because they are too worried about results and what will happen if they fail or embarrass themselves. For example, golfers don’t want to get ridiculed for missing a short one on the 18th hole to win the match. Basketball player don’t want to miss a free-throw in the final moments of the game and lose the game.
A football kicker doesn’t want to miss a game-winning field goal kick, such as Scott Norwood of the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl. When your kick or shot could mean the difference between winning or losing for your team, you might have a greater chance for choking.
A research article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science (Association for Psychological Science) examines how choking can be caused when athletes think too much when performing. And certainly I think this is one explanation for choking under pressure.
“We think when you’re under pressure, that your attention goes inward naturally. Suddenly it means so much, you want to make sure everything’s working properly,” says Rob Gray, of the University of Birmingham. Athletes who are under pressure often try to do too much to performance well; they think they should try harder or analyze their game more. Thinking too much about a well-learned skill can actually sabotage your performance.
When in the zone, athletes are able to react intuitively based on their practice–they can let it happen instead of make it happen. But when you are afraid to fail or disappoint your team, it’s hard to let go and just trust in your skills. Gray says the objective is to help athletes understand what changes happen to them when they are worried about failing. “Focusing on what you’re doing makes you mess up, but why? How do your movements change? How can we focus on correcting those issues instead of telling you to stop trying so hard?”
Gray discovered that athletes who choke when they feel under pressure don’t perform as consistently. In baseball, they get less hits that what their stats would indicate. It’s clear that if you feel under pressure, you movements might not feel as fluid or smooth as normal. You might default to over-control, which happens with athletes who have the yips.
Over control is the same concept as over thinking your performance. Bottom line: you have to let go of trying harder and trust what you have trained yourself to do in practice.