In Part III (“Mind-Set for Success”) of Mind Gym, there’s a chapter called Breathe and Focus that discusses choking in the context of athletics. I’ve always found choking to be an interesting subject, and this chapter contains some practical advice to recognize the symptoms and take action to recover.
There are entire books on the subject of choking, and it was addressed quite thoroughly in Bounce. Here’s my write-up on the relevant chapter:
The annals of sports are full of unfortunate stories of athletes who have had the misfortune to choke under pressure. Syed shares his own experience, a humiliating performance at the Sydney Olympic games, then tells the story of Greg Norman‘s epic collapse at the 1996 Masters tournament. Why are experts sometimes reduced to performing no better than an amateur? I’ve seen several books dedicated to the subject of choking, but I likely won’t read them because Syed describes the causes of the phenomenon in sufficient detail. Earlier, I mentioned the concepts of implicit memory and explicit memory. Each of these is executed in a different brain system, in literally a different part of the brain. Syed describes that, “This migration from the explicit to the implicit system of the brain has two crucial advantages. First, it enables the expert player to integrate the various parts of a complex skill into one fluent whole…something that would be impossible at a conscious level because there are too many interconnecting variables for the conscious mind to handle. And second, it frees up attention to focus on higher-level aspects of the skill such as tactics and strategy.” (p191) Personally, I’ve always been amazed at post-match interviews that have an athlete casually describe their exact thoughts and strategy during a crucial point, as I wonder how on Earth they had the time and awareness to be thinking rather than just executing. Well, mystery explained!
In brain terms, choking occurs when the explicit memory takes over, temporarily erasing all those years of practice. Why might this happen? Well, the athlete might simply be thinking too much about the technique required, and this focuses the conscious mind on all the parts that will be used. Says Sian Beilock, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, “Once [a motor skill] is de-chunked, each unit must be activated and run separately. Not only does this process slow performance, but it also creates an opportunity for error at each transition between units that was not present in the integrated control structure.” (p195) Again, very neat stuff. Paradoxically, caring too much is a prime way to cause your motor skills to de-chunk at the crucial time, and to switch your brain from implicit to explicit mode. To avoid choking, in the words of six-time World Snooker Champion Steve Davis, you have to play “as if it means nothing when it means everything”. (p200)
Gary Mack explains that choking is “a normal human reaction, a physiological response to a perceived psychological threat.” (Mind Gym – p132) After describing how athletes under pressure will change their breathing pattern, Mack goes on to say: “Oxygen is energy – it’s juice. Oxygen helps relax muscles and clear the mind. When you hold your breath, you are creating pressure and a nervous feeling. Athletes who choke start to become nervous about being nervous. Anxious about being anxious.” (Mind Gym – p132)
Alright, we understand what choking is…but how do we avoid it, or respond to it effectively when it arises?
In The Sports Gene, Sian Beilock is once again cited in the context of choking, and this relates directly to the explanation provided in Bounce: “University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock has shown that a golfer can overcome pressure-induced choking in putting – paralysis by analysis, she calls it – by singing to himself, and thus preoccupying the higher conscious areas of the brain.”
“The pattern of your breathing affects the pattern of your performance.” – Gary Mack
Mack offers additional advice: “The pattern of your breathing affects the pattern of your performance. When you are under stress, deep breathing helps bring your mind and body back into the present.” (Mind Gym – p132)
Practically, both of these techniques should help you to get back into the peak area of the performance curve.
You can also consciously prepare your body and mind in advance so that you are less prone to choke in the first place; baseball great Lou Piniella’s suggested that “You have to learn how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
“You have to learn how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” – Lou Piniella
That might sound a tad simplistic, but it’s actually spot on. The best way to extend our comfort zone is to repeatedly push beyond it. To illustrate the “comfortable with being uncomfortable statement, Mack uses the metaphor of jumping into cold water:
Have you ever stepped into a cold shower or icy lake or swimming pool? The cold takes your breath away. Your first impulse is to get out. But if you breathe and stay focused you gradually become accustomed to the water temperature. The experience is akin to performing under pressure. By breathing and focusing you can systematically desensitize yourself. (Mind Gym – p133)
As usual, I believe these lessons apply well beyond the arena of sports – people in all walks of life are under pressure to perform. We can all perform better if we:
- Push beyond our comfort zones, and train ourselves to get comfortable with being uncomfortable
- Recognize when our breathing has changed, which is a natural response to stress
- Respond by filling our lungs with some deep breaths, to fill our minds and bodies with oxygen
The same physiology applies, whether we’re on the playing field or in the boardroom.