September 30, 2014

How You Can Prevent Choking In Your Sport

Written by:
Stuart Lierich

For anyone coaching athletes where measurement and review of performance exists, or at such level where results (skill execution) is paramount, then article is sure to appeal.

As a Specialist Skills & Kicking Coach, it's important for me to have a holistic approach to coaching and the appraisal of performance.

Quite simply, mechanical error is not always (often) the cause of poor execution for rugby players with well developed technique. We need to dig a little deeper...

This may be the same for hockey forwards, netball shooters, javelin throwers or footballers entrusted with spot kicks.

So why does a player or athlete who always seems to run high conversion percentages, miss the attempt to win a match? Or kick poorly when playing at a particular venue?

We've all seen many golfers having to make 'that' championship putt as well...

We will explore a few of the reasons for this, and other '*self paced skill' errors in this article, but first let's explore the answer that Dr Chris Mesagno P.hd offered in a recent interview on KickCoachingTV.

So for the benefit of all we should ask Chris:

“What is Choking?”

So although the term 'Choking' is widely used, it is important for us to consider the correct context when assessing for intervention purposes.

Choking 'Criteria':

  • An athlete experiences an anxiety increase, leading to a considerable decrease in performance or execution.
  • The athlete experiencing the decrease in performance must be already reasonably skilled at what’s being performed. (A novice cannot be considered to choke as they have not a fully developed technique or routine)

Ok, great! So if choking when goal kicking is related to anxiety, then how can we measure how anxious a rugby kicker is? And can that help our coaching and prevent this from reoccurring?

“How To Measure Anxiety?”

Generally, the perceived importance of a situation (or goal attempt as an example) is the reason some kickers experience increased anxiety levels.

Before we begin to discuss strategies to regulate anxiety, we should first consider the 'self paced' skill such as place kicking in rugby or a football penalty goal attempt:

*Self – paced skills are those that are instigated by the performer. They control the timing of the performance, taking as much or as little time as they want.

Golf Putting, Basketball Free Throws and Place Kicking from a tee are all examples of self-paced skills.

It is these types of skills (as opposed to 'externally' affected) that anxiety has a window of opportunity to incubate. The structured nature of execution for these skills, if no strategies exist, can be riddled with conscious controlling thoughts.

The aim for any athlete performing these skill types is to develop a system and routine that (eventually!) has that player operating on autopilot. Building trust and a sound focus of attention appears to be key.

We cannot simply make anxiety disappear, but we can regulate its existence and tame its effect on outcomes.

The part of an athlete’s process that offers the greatest opportunity to prevent anxiety is the 'pre performance routine'. (Think just before the golf putt, free throw etc, what does the player do to get mentally ready?)

A pre performance routine can be defined as ‘sequence of task relevant thoughts and actions which an athlete engages in systematically prior to their performance of a specific sport skill (Moran 1996, p177).

Quade Cooper, Queensland Reds

Before any approach to the kicking tee is made, a player must be in a psychological state of readiness to ensure effective execution.

Evidence shows that taking your time, in a relaxed state, is more beneficial than rushing to avoid this "anxiety inducing" state. Like any other skill, there is an optimal duration of this state depending on the individual.

Pro Tip: Counting to 5 before performing your skill, will shift attentional focus away from emotions and mechanical thoughts!)

It is recommended also that an extended but focused gaze on the target will reduce anxiety, free one’s mind and improve accuracy likelihood!

The main benefit of a PPR is that they prevent conscious controlling thoughts (generally mechanical) about the upcoming kick attempt. As shown above, many individual variations exist. Many inexperienced coaches have attempted to change an unorthodox PPR to the detriment of performance.

If it doesn't affect performance negatively then no intervention should be required. If the PPR doesn't adequately allow for the shift to auto pilot then it will need some further development.

Much of my work, at both developmental and professional rugby levels is to help my players build a level (strategy) of concentration that will assist the PPR.Something that I incorporate into my individualised coaching methods along with attentional focus strategies. Trust, not as we commonly know it, is the skill of clearing the mind from controlling thoughts during the kicking PPR.

*did he just slip, or was he thinking about slipping?Trust appears to some counter-productive, as it goes against the general process of acquiring the skill in the first place. In practice, kickers are given various forms of feedback and instructional cues. Yet in competition we want them to kick with a free mind.

Herein lies the challenge for coaches of self paced skills.

Below are some thoughts on the development of trust for a goal kicking routine. As previously mentioned, these are well documented terms from academics and sport science practitioners. The practice, and its adoption, as far as I know, is not widespread. Let's face it, at some level, most coaches have some strategies for attentional focus (we hope anyway!)

How to Access Trust:

A sound *focus strategy is underpinned by - Concentration.

This then leads to the gaining of Confidence.From confidence a player begins to more consistently demonstrate Composure.

And only when a kicker has moved through the acquisition of these sub skills, then they can access TRUST.

"Trust is one way of preparing athletes to execute their attempts free from conscious controlling thought processes". Any thought/processing interference serve to undermine any performance of skill if not fully developed”.

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