At League of Fans, we deal with sports issues that impact both fans and participants, from the youth level to the professional level. Usually, we focus on issues of fairness and justice in sports. But today I want to take a little fork in the road and touch on a phenomenon that’s common to all athletes, whether the recreational weekend warrior, Little League baseball player, or top-level professional athlete: choking.

Those of us who have competed — or who are still competing — in athletics, know there’s one thing we all share: at various points we’ve all choked during a sporting event. We’ve gotten so nervous, so tight, that we couldn’t perform anywhere near our potential. As a result, we’ve made mistakes and we’ve lost games we probably shouldn’t have.

Despite this universal experience, the subject of choking remains almost a taboo subject amongst athletes. It’s almost as if the mere mention of the word would elicit the choking sensation.

At various points in my career in sports — coach, consultant, professor, writer — I’ve examined the choking phenomenon in sports. I’ve researched the topic, analyzed it, written about it, and read more than a few sports psychology books addressing the issue.

This weekend, I was listening to a couple basketball analysts discuss the topic of choking in sports. It got me thinking. I jotted down on paper the best things I’ve read, heard, and experimented with, regarding sports anxiety. Here they are:

First, as long as you play sports, you’re going to experience occasional anxiety. It comes with the territory and it’s part of what makes sports exciting and fun. I once heard a pro football player say, “If you’re not nervous before a game, you’re not ready to play.” I think that’s true. Second, every athlete “chokes” at some point. I know I certainly have. But even the greats like Roger Federer, Peyton Manning, and Michael Jordan have choked at critical times. They’ve screwed up in games or matches because they were overly anxious or tight. Once again, it’s part of the game and part of being human. The challenge is to manage your anxiety and limit those instances.

Here are five thoughts about dealing with nerves in sports that I think can be helpful for any athlete, at any level.

1) Realize Your Opponent is Nervous Too — A lot of times we think we’re the only athlete nervous during a game. In reality, our opponent is usually as nervous as we are — and maybe more so. So, it’s a matter of how each opponent deals with it. Tell yourself, “I may be nervous but my opponent is nervous too (whether or not he/she shows that anxiety outwardly).”

2) Admit to Yourself That You’re Choking — Serious The natural reaction when you start to feel anxious is to try and push it away or ignore it. That seldom works. There’s an old adage that says, “What you resist, persists.” Fighting against anxiety just makes it stronger. According to famous golfer turned golf analyst Johnny Miller, the best approach to choking is to simply admit it. Say to yourself, “I’m choking. It’s completely natural. It just means that what I’m doing is important to me. So, I’m going to acknowledge the nervous feeling and then focus on what I’m trying to do on this next play.”

3) Be Willing to Fail and Make Mistakes — It seems counterintuitive but being willing to mess up is the best attitude to take. Most fear in sports comes from being unwilling to fail, or make a mistake. The more you resist losing, failure, or making an error, the tighter you become. The natural tendency is to try and avoid being embarrassed. Ironically, the key to success in sports is the willingness to fail. And that’s where a big part of confidence comes from too. If you say to yourself, “I prefer not to fail or make a mistake but if I do, I do. I can handle it,” you’re going to have the advantage over the athlete who’s telling him/herself “I can’t screwup. We have to win this game. If I mess up, or we lose, that would be terrible.” That athlete’s going to be as tight as a drum, while the first athlete, who’s mindset is “If I fail, I fail, I can handle it,” is going to play a lot more loosely and confidently.

4) Focus on the Present Task — There’s a famous sports psychology book called, “The Inner Game of Tennis.” One of the key things I remember from reading it is to focus on what’s happening NOW, not what happened last point, or last play … or what might happen in the future. Easier said than done, right? Well, to do that, the author, W. Timothy Gallwey, recommends what could be called the “One-Two Technique.” Here’s how it works: Focus on the opposing player, when he/she serves, say to yourself “One” when he/she hits the ball. Focusing on the ball, say “Two” when you make contact and hit the ball back; then “One” when he/she hits it back and “Two” when you return it, etc. This gets your mind focused on the present rather than thinking about a missed shot in the last game, or a potential outcome in the future (e.g., “What if I lose this set?”).

5) When Nervous, Focus on Your Process Routines — When a match or game gets tight, focus on your pre-established routines in order to stay in the moment. For example, if shooting a free throw, focus on your free throw routine (e.g., bounce the ball three times, spin the ball once, focus on the rim and shoot). A tennis example: before serving, take a deep breath, adjust your strings, bounce the ball twice, look at your target and serve. Whatever your routine, always do the same thing. Therefore, whether it’s during practice or the national championship game, your brain and body will recognize the routine and allow you the best chance to perform effectively.

Sports psychology is a big part of sports but an aspect that coaches don’t talk about much. They should address the mental game more than they do.

For the rest of us, as long as we’re going to continue participating in sports, we might as well adopt a mental approach that maximizes our chances of success and enjoyment. I’m no sports psychologist, but I have experienced and witnessed choking in sports as an athlete, coach, and fan. I think these five tips are the best way to deal with it.

–Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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