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Posted 07/02/2021 in Category 1 by George Mitchell

Don’t Choke, I choked!

Don’t Choke, I choked!

There have been multiple times in sport which on occasions has been broadcasted in front of millions of attentive spectators where an athlete falters at the vital moment. This can be extremely painful to watch, especially if the athlete is at the top of their game or has previously achieved victory in a similar circumstance. 

In any situation, when an athlete is playing with a nervous yearning to achieve, this is known as performance pressure (Hardy, Mullen, & Jones, 1996). Choking and panicking does get thrown around a lot in sport and can be loosely labelled as an underperformance by the athlete or team.

This term “choking” is one that you may have heard of and already understand to a certain extent, but here we will consider in more detail as to what it is and what you can do as a performer to avoid this sudden drop in performance. 

Choking is common expression in lots of sports and often raises fear into players at all levels. But what does it really mean to experience this ‘choke’ and how can we combat it or prevent it?  

One prime example of a professional golfer choking under pressure was Rory Mcllory in 2011 during the Masters. He saw his level of performance drop massively under high pressure. Choking can ruin a good round of golf but can also lower your enjoyment of the sport and general well-being. 

Choking can have serious consequences and it is important to understand precisely what choking is before you start preventing this from happening. 

Choking is when an athlete or performer goes through an affected deterioration in performance when usually under more pressure than normal. 

One example would be when a tennis player is playing in an open final and they feel a great amount of pressure to player well, which could lead to their performance levels reducing immensely from their normal. This could be a classified as a choke.  

A vast amount of research has been undertaken in attempting to understand why certain performers choke under pressure and the explanation that has become widely acknowledged from the literature is the conscious processing hypothesis (CPH) designed by Masters (1992). 

What CPH suggests in layman terms is that when there are low levels or zero pressure, a skilled perfumer e.g. basketball player, can perform a free throw (well-learnt) with very little thought and is an autonomous movement. 

This means that the basketball player doesn’t need to think about anything other than perhaps their self-talk instructional/motivational phrase. Furthermore, this could be a standard training shot meaning there is low pressure. 

On the contrary, when the pressure is high then CPH suggests that the performer begins to focus on the movements/actions behind the free throw resulting in a greater amount of thinking into the mechanics of the movement leaving limited room to think about their normal thought processes. This means the throw which is usually automatic becomes de-automized and the natural throw is lost resulting in the choke.  

When anxiety is increased, a key component in warranting success, is to be able to stay focused and to control attention (Janelle, 2002, as cited in, Vine, Moore & Wilson, 2014).

If this happens or has happened to you previously, what can you now do in order to prevent this from happening?

One key strategy is to use cue words or a self-talk phrase.

1) Create a word or short sentence which represents the movement that you need to do. For example, in tennis, for your serve, you could say to yourself ‘graceful’ or ‘rhythm’. This word however, does need to be specific to you and you will need time to develop it. 

2) When preparing yourself, you may need to repeat this instruction so that you prevent other destructive thoughts creeping into your mind.

3) Like any new skill in tennis, it is vital that you continuously practice and use it in your training sessions so it becomes a natural part of your routine. 

4) Now taking it into competition, when there is greater pressure, stay calm, use your pre-shot routine, direct your attention to the cue word(s) and it will block out those thoughts that would be damaging to your autonomous movement. 

This can be strongly evidenced by Gucciardi et al (2010) who discovered some interesting observations about the choking phenomenon. By solely focus on one word which would summarise their performance outcome e.g. ‘fluid’ or ‘strong’ the golfers performed much better. 

These words are simple and positive enough to distract them and can stop them over-analysing other aspects of their performance such as their limb position which ultimately allows their swing to be more natural. 

This is of course, only one way which you could reduce the chance of choking and with examples in only a handful of sports. If you would like to know more about how psychological support can help with your performance then feel free to get in contact today and we would be more than happy to have a chat with you about your performance. 


Gucciardi, D. F., Longbottom, J. L., Jackson, B., & Dimmock, J. A. (2010). Experienced golfers’ perspectives on choking under pressure. Journal of sport and exercise psychology, 32(1), 61-83.

Hardy, L., Mullen, R., & Jones, G. (1996). Knowledge and conscious control of motor actions under stress. British Journal of psychology, 87(4), 621-636.

Janelle, C. M. (2002). Anxiety, arousal and visual attention: A mechanistic account of performance variability. Journal of sports sciences, 20(3), 237-251. As cited in Vine, S. J., Moore, L. J., & Wilson, M. R. (2014). Quiet eye training: The acquisition, refinement and resilient performance of targeting skills. European journal of sport science, 14 (sup1), S235-S242.

Masters, R. S. (1992). Knowledge, nerves and know‐how: The role of explicit versus implicit knowledge in the breakdown of a complex motor skill under pressure. British journal of psychology, 83(3), 343-358.

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