In working with athletes on emotional control especially as it concerns emotional intelligence I frequently need to help athletes cope with situations in which they say they choked. In my opening of many of my speeches I often begin by telling people “Basically I help people in sports and business, Not Choke” It is a description many understand perhaps better than other explanations of what applied sport psych people do. So here is a bit of an important understanding regarding choking vs panicking in sports.

Very often it is a big game or a game that involved added pressure. Added pressure could be anything from a big crowd or critical situation. Sometimes it is not the game, but who is watching.  Just having someone important in the crowd, like a special relation, scout or coach that the athlete is trying to impress has been known to increase the level of pressure causing athletes to have a poor performance. We have over time seen instances on TV in major championships where athletes did not cope properly with the competition. There are two negative behaviors that can occur under this type of pressure. Choking and Panicking.

I received a post from an associate about a book called “What the Dog Saw”

I had read this a few years ago when it first came out. The author is Malcolm Gladwell and it is available through Amazon.com.  He has a chapter in it called “The Art of Failure”.  Gladwell does a great job in describing the differences between the two by describing behavior, brain processes, and psychological studies related to choking and panicking.  

“Choking is about thinking too much.  Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct.  Panic is reversion to instinct.  They may look the same, but they are worlds apart.”

Let’s look at choking first. When an athlete starts to focus on the future outcome and has negative thoughts as in what will people say if I miss the shot or if I don’t skate well tonight Coach Jones isn’t going to offer me a scholarship. The thoughts are plentiful and cause an athlete to be tight and not play to their ability. When I teach relaxation training one of the muscle groups I focus on revolve around the neck and jaw because these muscles tighten under pressure hence the name Choking. Teaching athletes to be aware of tightening of these muscles can allow them early recognition that they need to refocus. The thought of the possibility of choking during competition ruins many players ability to enjoy their sport. It often is a more destructive thought than actual concerns about team or even their own success. The shame and embarrassment of having choked the game away can be very debilitating. The answer is understanding how important our self-talk is in shaping our behavior. What we say to ourselves really does matter. Using emotional control in stressful situations will help a player tremendously. It is a skill that can be learned and is part of understanding emotional intelligence.

Panic is a bit different. It is the abandonment of everything an athlete has trained to do and relies on instinct. This is our old limbic system at work, or the flight / fight response so often seen in sports. An athlete seemingly just loses (some would say their minds) control and panic sets in. Often time I have seen athletes break down completely. All of their strategy or tactics goes out the window. Dependent on their skill level they can sometimes play OK, but their focus is gone and they often react contrary to game plans. Either way choking or panicking issues remain similar in that performance degrades completely. Elite athletes may rely on their greater experience and find a way to overcome panic and settle in. This is where experience plays a role and why coping behavior is so important. If we remember that practice does not make perfect, that perfect practice makes perfect it is easier to understand what happens during competition. If an athlete panics, the more ingrained perfect practice is, the more likely they rely on that experience. It is why I emphasize the use of guided imagery to enhance the practice competitive experience. If an athlete uses imagery rehearsal and practices stressful situations with positive results, when stressed they will relay on the system that is highly practiced and trained, resulting in a better performance. This can be very unconscious as opposed to the more conscious behavior of choking.