Last weekend, I visited family out in Seattle. On the way back home, I picked up a book in the airport, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To by Sian Bellock. Initially flipping through it, I worried that it would be too technical. A few hours later after finishing it, I found it to be one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
As a coach and athlete, I am very interested in the science of optimal performance. In other words, how people perform at their best when it matters most. Certainly this has a lot to do with art and science of an athlete’s training and physiology. But I’ve found it has even more to do with cognitive science – the mind. How does an athlete perform their best under pressure? And if they fall short, why? Choke seeks to answer that.
It helps first to define what it means to choke. According to Bellock, “choking under pressure is poor performance that occurs in response to the perceived stress of the situation.” Highly stressful situations cause the athlete to either overthink something that is usually automatic or under-focus on something that needs more attention. For example, the athlete thinks so intently about their run form during a race that they forget to pace themselves. Though the athlete may have practiced both pacing and fueling in their training, the stress of the situation caused changes in their own behavior that led to choking. Bellock explores how and why that happens.
Stressful situations cause worry. Worry and self-doubt can impair the brain’s ability to function properly. When we worry, we try to exert control on actions or processes that are automatic. For example, a basketball player making a free throw. Shooting the ball into the hoop is not necessarily difficult – it’s something they do in every practice and game many, many times. The action has become automatic in their brain. But unique feelings, pressures or perceptions of that athlete or the situation can turn this very simple task into a choke. Often because the athlete tries to exert control on the outcome. In other words, it’s the game winning shot, you’re at the free throw line, the crowd is hissing and your team is relying on you. At a time when you should just go with the flow and do what you know how you to do, you try to control the outcome and focus intently on making the shot, going so far as to tell yourself don’t miss this shot. What you don’t want to happen often happens – you choke.
How then does an athlete prepare for this? One of the more interesting concepts was pressure training. Many athletes are able to perform well and execute their plan in training. However, come race day, they get completely derailed. Studies have shown that when people practice in an environment with no pressure, when they are put under pressure, they indeed will choke. Stressful situations, like a race, tend to increase your self-awareness and propensity for trying to control the outcome. All of a sudden, the “pressure” of your finishing time or nabbing that Kona slot throws you off your game. You’re hyperattentive to every move you make, you become more rigid, you overthink, you overanalyze, you get scared. What you’ve done a few dozen times in training – times, paces, strategies, go completely out the window because of the stress.
How, then, do you prepare for the stress of race day? Practices where mild levels of stress are stimulated teach the athlete how stay calm, cool and collected. If you’ve ever read about Michael Phelps’ coach snapping Phelps’ goggles and then making him compete – this is pressure simulation. Triathlon, being outside and combining 3 different sports, has many opportunities for highly stressful situations – chop in the water, rain or wind on the bike, heat on the run. Training in low pressure situations (ie., always indoors) does not prepare you for how to handle the stressors. Getting out there and dealing with conditions can familiarize you with how your body responds to stressors and how to work through them. Moreover, racing ‘less important’ or smaller races throughout the season gets you used to the physical, emotional and mental pressures of racing – confronting them and learning new strategies for dealing with them.
Not surprisingly, high performers tend to have difficulty downplaying the importance of high pressure situations which interferes with their ability to succeed. Often, high performing athletes place a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed in order to live up to the expectations of their fans, sponsors and family. In the case of a professional, their performance may impact their financial situation. When so much is riding on their performance, it’s easy to overestimate the importance of your performance and therefore try to control it. Therefore, perspective, or understanding that you are not defined by one dimension, alleviate some of the pressure you may feel. Taking a few moments to think of your value from many dimensions, not just as an athlete, may show you that success or failure does not impact who you are permanently, it’s just another part of your experience. In my own experience, this is why I feel many athletes are better athletes after a major life event (ie., injury, childbirth) – it simply reinforces that there is more to life than triathlon and whether they succeed or fail, it doesn’t impact who they are.
Some of the highest performers can also be the most self critical. Thinking of yourself negatively or stereotyping leads to poor performance. For example, perceiving yourself as a poor swimmer or a slow runner can become a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to choking. Before races, setting aside a few minutes to reflect on your positive qualities has been shown to improve performance. In fact, disclosure via expressive writing reduces negative thinking. When you disclose your fear or worries, your brain has the ability to work better and you feel better. Giving labels to emotions or reactions tends to lessen the emotional distress you may feel from pressure. Subsequently, this frees your mind from unwanted thoughts and gives you something to focus on other than the negative. Research has shown that writing about worries or stressors in your life for 20 minutes, every week, helps you focus on the tasks at hand and lessen the incidence of intrusive thoughts. And intrusive thoughts are exactly what can lead to choking.
Along the same lines as self-critical, the self-conscious athlete is also prone to choking. The more you worry about what other people will think, the more anxious you become and the poorer you perform. In the past few years, I’ve noticed an interesting trend among triathletes. With the increase in social media, we tend to overemphasize the importance of what we’re doing and constantly place ourselves under the scrutiny of 789287489 followers. Prior to big races, I encourage my athletes to disconnect from social media to alleviate this “imagined” pressure and focus on what’s really important – performing to please themselves.
Choking can also be brought upon by spectators. Athletes are more likely to focus on themselves and their performance when watched by a supportive (friends and family) audience which can lead to a poorer performance – although the athlete might feel like being watched by a supportive audience is actually less stressful. The reason being that falling flat on your face in front of people you love can be very disappointing. In other words, we want to impress our supporters. To make sure we are successful enough to do this, we try to control what we’re doing so we can control the outcome. When we try to control the outcome, we are more likely to choke. Some athletes thrive when surrounded by their entire family on the sidelines. Other athletes tend to choke. Look back at your race history and decide who you perform better around.
One of the challenges of triathlon coaching is that we are often working with what I call adult-onset athletes. Working with someone who learned how to swim as an adult is completely different than working with someone who learned as a child. Bellock discusses how the later someone learns, the more vulnerable they are to choking under pressure. Children use a different type of memory for learning. Adults try to control their performance in such a way that it actually disrupts it. They overconcentrate and get stuck. Paralysis by analysis. When you learn something new, your brain is firing all over the place, trying to make connections and ingrain patterns. As you approach more of an expert level, the brain calms down, with decreased activity in areas involved in action or performance. As learning of a new skill progresses, your brain becomes more efficient and works less. The skill becomes more fluid and less in need of control or attention. When an athlete overthinks or tries to overcontrol, this interferes with automated skills. Swimming is a great example as it is largely automatic. The more an adult thinks about it, the more they tend to become rigid and cause the opposite of what they are seeking.
Another interesting point: the more time you have to prepare for a performance due to a schedule change or delay, the more likely you are to choke. During this time, you have time to overthink your performance. In triathlon, race delays due to course safety or weather are common. Having a distraction or calming strategy is key to not allowing this time to ‘throw you off your game’ or try to change your plan. In other words, find ways to keep yourself from thinking (or overthinking) what should already be automatic.
What happens if you’ve choked? Those with a history of failure are, not surprisingly, more likely to choke. As an athlete fears reinforcing negative expectations, they tend to overanalyze and interfere with performance. So what to do? The easy answer to preventing a choke is to simply tell someone to relax and let it flow, right? Wrong – telling someone to relax often causes the opposite of what you are seeking. Instead, it may help to learn meditation. Meditation is effective at training the brain to discard negative thoughts. In other words, when a stressful thought arises – acknowledge it, name it and then let it go. Don’t try to change it, ignore or take action because of it. Understand that it does not need to interfere with your performance. We also know that negative self-talk or thinking about what you might lose from yet another failure can impact performance. If you’ve choked in the past, don’t dwell on it. Instead, rewire your brain. Learned helplessness occurs when you revisit your failures without reworking them. To get past this, revisit your failure. Then, write about how you feel. Next, think about what went wrong. Lastly, plan performance changes for the next race.
One of the key points that Bellock makes is, “holding on to thoughts and worries under stress leads to an inability to perform the tasks you are faced with, and learning how to control your mind so that you are able to hone your attention on what matters (and only what matters) is the real key to success under pressure.” The major takeaway from Choke is that you can tie up a lot of your brainpower with unnecessary worry and perceived pressure in stressful situations. Learning how to trust your stuff and not try to control the outcome is often the key to high performance. Throughout the book, Bellock offers a lot of strategies for how to do this – ie., meditate, write about your worries, practice under pressure, reaffirm your self-worth, find a key word, distract yourself or think about the journey versus perseverating on the outcome.
Bellock presents a lot of fascinating research and many more strategies to help you achieve optimal performance. I’ve barely scratched the surface here. If you have some time, take a look at Choke to how it can make you a better athlete.