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Choking under pressure in competitive sports

Anyone who does sport to a competitive level will know the feeling of choking under pressure and not performing to their best. The nerves kick in, the anticipation of winning or losing the match become a factor and our physiological and psychological responses to this reduce our endurance, coordination and body mechanics. These factors combined lead to a drop in athletic performance and could ultimately cost us the match, race or event and so why do we sometimes choke, and what can we do to reduce the instances of it happening? Choking is the result of the athlete’s nervousness suddenly spiking, leading to a shortness of breath, increased muscle tension and negative thoughts/self doubt. The cause of choking can be seen as a switch in focus, first to the future instead of the right now, and secondly from their own performance to that of their opponents. When our focus is in the moment, we perform to the standard we are trained to and are calm and composed, leading to peak performance. However, as soon as our focus jumps to the future – imagining a loss, or a win, our anxiety levels shoot up, leading to a decline in motor skill, athletic performance and general cognition and physical ability. Reactions that you diligently practice in training affect your performance, not your thinking! When you begin to think of your opponent’s strength, size or skill, your own focus is disturbed and hence athletic performance declines. An athlete’s nervousness is primarily due to them feeling under threat and so their body either prepares for fight, flight or when neither is possible, freeze. Say we have an awful day on the track, nothing is going right and on the final race of the day, we lose by a frankly embarassing performance. We will memorize and internalize everything about that race and when we next come to compete it is entirely possible the memory will be rekindled by a sight, smell or noise. When this happens we lose the ability to perform to our highest standard as our survival reactions of fight, flight or freeze kick in rather than our trained skills e.g. kicking a football. Awareness of this phenomena is key to combating it and being able to tell what concentration is lapping from the now, to the future or the opponent’s ability will allow us to snap ourselves back into the present, hopefully reducing the chances of a decline in performance by allowing all the training done previously to kick in, leading to success. Every athlete will at some point will feel nerves, but it’s how the nerves are dealt with that matters most. Allow nerves to overtake and choking can occur leading to a decline in performance. Using the nerves and adrenaline positively however can actually improve performance and a heart rate of between 125-145bpm is when the body is at its most capable with enough adrenaline to increase performance. Above the 145bpm mark, performance ability starts to decrease however and awareness of what your body is doing and why it’s doing it is crucial to dealing with nerves. Understanding why we get nerves and why nerves kick in can go a long way in using those nerves positively to increase our performance in sport and prevent choking in competitive games.

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