Choking: What It Is & How To Avoid It

Just as the college season comes to a close in the United States, the Australian University season is kicking here in the Southern Hemisphere. The first step for many teams is to look back to last year and identify areas where they can improve to take one step further this season. For my old team, I’d imagine the main focus will be identifying the factors that lead to us getting outscored 6-1 in the second half of our semifinal matchup at Nationals, a game we were very much in control of at halftime.

Unfortunately, the reason is pretty difficult to fix. We had choked. We had fundamentally changed the mental strategies we employed in the first half and saw the game slip away from us. We’ve all done it, and professional sportspeople and teams choke too, but without an understanding of the psychology behind the phenomenon, choking can seem insurmountable.

There’s two definitions I’d like to present before I go on. The first is the fundamental difference between choking and panicking.

Gladwell presents a definition his What the Dog Saw chapter entitled ‘The Art of Failure.’ He suggests that choking is too much thinking, moving away from practiced reflexes to poorly thought out actions. On the other hand, panicking is too little thinking, resorting to primitive reflexes.

I believe that in any sport there’s a combination of two different types of activity: reflex actions and intensity actions. Reflex actions are those skills which we practice over and over again because they occur too quickly to be efficiently managed by the brain’s consciousness. These skills include hitting a baseball, throwing or kicking a football, and throwing a disc. Intensity actions are the conscious decisions we make to run hard, lay out, or play proper defence.

There is a pretty clear link between managing choking and the practiced skills required to be an effective ultimate player, as both require control of emotions and mental capacity to avoid over-thinking or allowing the conscious to make decisions over the subconscious. And how you manage this as a player, captain, or coach differs greatly from managing a lack of intensity.

I come from a rowing background, and I’ve rowed and coached for 10 years. Rowing is pretty easy, the stroke really involves one reflex movement (a drive backwards in a straight line) and a number of other movements for which time can effectively be slowed down by decreasing the stroke rate. Once these movements have been taught and refined, going fast becomes more about working hard. Managing the confidence and expectations of those you’re coaching is important, but a kick to the ego when they’re not working hard enough is pretty helpful when your team is being soft. Targeting the intensity actions is a great way to get more effort out of your teammates.

Unfortunately, what a lot of team leaders don’t realise (across most sports) is that form of coaching and management appeals ONLY to the intensity actions, and is actually incredibly detrimental to reflex actions. As described in Gladwell’s definition, the worst thing for reflex actions is for a player to actively try and control those actions within a greater movement. They simply happen too quickly to be consciously managed. But yet, many players will continue to try and regulate their actions closely during a game because they feel like they’re not doing their best.

And this really shows us the major driver behind choking: Confidence. Good players who have put a lot into training have a lot to lose. As soon as they lose confidence, their egos respond by trying to work harder, trying to be a better player, trying to not make those silly mistakes. All those are conscious decisions, then that consciousness starts to drive reflex actions. Not surprisingly, most players choke when they get it into their heads that they need to be working harder.

As we start to see, a coach, captain, or teammate using a style that appeals to the intensity actions are actually the ones to blame for their teammates deteriorating reflex abilities. Really, there is no reason to get a players confidence down about their reflex movements as there is no positive effect to be gained. Sure, if a player isn’t working hard enough on defense or on the practice track or putting in the hours your team requires, a kick to the ego can get that person back on track. However,any mention of their reflex ability should be left alone.

Now that we’ve identified the mental processes behind choking, what can be done to try and minimise the impact or frequency of occurrence?

First of all, appreciate that if someone is throwing badly, pointing that out to them is the worst thing you can do. Try instead to take their mind off it by changing your game plan slightly to move them away from the situation where they’re making mistakes. If that person is having trouble hitting up-the-line dumps, reconfigure your dump movement so that if the second handler can’t get open back field, they clear and let the front of stack come back for the swing. It’s not ideal, but it’s a whole lot more effective than calling your teammate out on their shortcomings and tanking their confidence.

Secondly, be friends with those people you play with. At least some of them. The pressure of failure is so much lighter when you know that regardless of what happens on the field, those guys and girls you play with are still going to love you afterwards. I’ve rarely felt like my teammates would ever bring on-field failure into our friendships.

Additionally, I think there’s a lot to be said for having a team joke that can make you laugh whatever the situation. Being able to laugh releases a whole lot of stress, and if you can do a stupid dance when you’re going to pick up the disc to take your mind off what’s about to happen, that’s a whole lot less time for you to worry about failing.

Finally, appreciate that your teammates are probably trying pretty damn hard to do their best. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no excuse ever to yell at a teammate about a mistake made on offense. I feel like every game of ultimate I watch, there’s one guy who isn’t getting things going his way and he takes it out on a teammate. Nearly every game I watch where that happens, that guy’s team loses.

With an understanding of the impact and causes of choking, confidence, and positivity, I have no doubt your team will improve remarkably without any change in physical skill.

A few months ago, I tried out for the Australian U23 mixed team. The first camp was over a couple of days, and on the first evening I overhead one of the selectors telling a player that they couldn’t throw. In the middle of a camp where every player was under a lot of scrutiny and pressure, this was probably the dumbest thing anyone has ever said to an ultimate player. The next day was rough. Confidence shattered, the player looked to be trying hard to improve throwing and make good decisions but they couldn’t. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t make the cut. I heard a few weeks later the same selector actually taunted that player about it. Seriously, don’t be that guy.

  1. Peter Adam
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    Peter Adam is a recent graduate of the University of Western Australia, living and playing in Perth between knee injuries. He has played since 2008 and spends his professional life as a corporate advisory analyst in the worlds most isolated capital city.

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