What is choking in sports?

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Choking in sports refers to an athlete or team’s inability to perform well under pressure. It can be caused by fear of career harm, past experiences, and negative self-talk. Sports psychology can help with guided imagery and relaxation techniques to reduce muscle tension and reject negative core beliefs. The pressure to perform can come from coaches, fans, and companies, contributing to suffocation.

Choking in sports is a slang term that refers to the inability of an individual athlete or an entire team to win a competition, or even just to do well in a single competition such as a game. The term far predates today’s most organized sports teams and may have referred to tests given to women sentenced as witches to swallowing a wafer. If the woman choked, which was not unusual given the stress of being called a witch, and she could not swallow the wafer, she was often sentenced to burn or hang to death.

For the athlete, fear of harm to his or her career, loss of valuable endorsement deals, and simply public perception may be behind the suffocation. Just when the touchdown pass needs to be thrown, the bat needs to hit a homerun, the runner needs to accelerate across the line, or the triple axel lands, the player chokes, or in other words, stresses to the point where his or hers performance is significantly hampered. It’s not uncommon for athletes to experience choking at one point or another in their careers, even if they’re extraordinarily good at their chosen sport.

Smothering can come from athletes who are overly concerned with their performance and who have had past experiences of not performing well when they truly had to. Figure skater Todd Eldridge, who skated beautifully in non-competitive venues, typically choked in competition. In fact, in most of his major competitions, you could almost bet that he would fall while he attempted to land in the jumps. When you watched him skate, you could see the tension, the anxiety written clearly on his face.

Sasha Cohen, another American figure skater, tended to do the same thing in competitions, even though she is regarded as one of the best figure skaters of the 2000s. In routines and practice displays she was amazing to watch. When she counted, however, in real competition, her skating quickly fell apart.

Some ways to prevent choking have to do with personal attitude. A player who thinks before performing for himself is less likely to choke. This can be difficult to do as fans, coaches and teammates can be very critical or annoyed by a less than perfect performance. Sports psychologists can help people with choking by using guided imagery, helping them learn meditative or self-hypnotic practices that reduce muscle tension. Some athletes listen to music right before participating in their sport as a relaxation technique.

One problem for athletes is extremely negative self-talk that may not be consciously apparent. On a subconscious level, core beliefs that the athlete cannot get the job done affect physicality and the ability to perform. Sports psychology can help when players can understand and reject these negative core beliefs that cause them to suffocate.
Despite that understanding, the excessive pressure to perform at one’s best is often from without as well as from within. Coaches, fans and companies can all contribute to stifling an athlete. They all want the athlete to perform at their best, and one player hears them, often screaming quite loudly as he performs. When this is coupled with negative self-talk, suffocation can be inevitable.

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