Training to prevent choking2 Opinions
Within elite sport it can be a huge challenge to prepare not only physically but psychologically for the spike in pressure which can be encountered during competition. The negative phenomena of this pressure placed upon an athlete can lead to choking, which is known as:
“an elevation in anxiety and arousal, under extreme pressure which leads to a critical deterioration in a performance which is normally habitual to that performer” (Gucciardi, Longbottom, Jackson & Dimmock, 2010).
Notable real life examples include, missing a penalty kick at a world cup, dropping a decisive putt in golf and double faulting on a match point in tennis. Questions are asked as to what can be done to ensure maintenance of performance during such crucial situations? A sceptical opinion often aired is that to train for these pressures is impossible, due to the difficulty in mimicking such high levels of pressure and the specific context involved (Oudejans & Pijpers, 2010). However, despite such claims the idea of training under anxiety in order to maintain high levels of performance has only recently faced examination.
Scientific research has shown that the deterioration in performance under pressure can be a result of attentional disturbances caused by heightened anxiety. Where two notably contrasting theoretical explanations have been proposed, this shift in attention will depend on the type of task involved. In a simple task such as throwing a dart, or a penalty kick, competitors will increase their focus on their own body’s movements. This can hinder the action because such movements are performed subconsciously by an athlete on a normal occasion, resulting in a breakdown of the normal movement performed.
In complex tasks such as a gymnastic floor routine, when under immense pressure competitors will shift their attention onto irrelevant information. This overload of information will inevitably hinder the performance thus cause a choke. A study by Oudejans and Pijpers (2010) showed that training under high levels of anxiety reduced a experts likelihood to choke under pressure. Although the results have been positive, it must be approached with caution and requires further investigation within different sports and ability levels. The applied perspective is based upon acclimatisation to anxiety which will then reduce its negative effects. An interesting finding by Oudejans and Pijpers (2009) stated that this process of acclimatising to anxiety and pressure seems to be a short term process, thus the performer when training will quickly develop self regulatory processes to counter negative effects of anxiety.
So if a player can train in pressurised environments, the athlete will learn to cope with these demands and although not guaranteed the athlete will be able to perform to their maximum capacity with no hindrances. Indeed, challenges lay ahead in creating an impression that something is at stake and to ensure the performers believe they will be under scrutiny. Such training tools if implemented could eliminate or dramatically reduce choking not only in sport but across numerous other domains.
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About Andrew Wood
Doctoral Researcher investigating REBT & Performance, Part Time Lecturer in Sport Psychology, Staffordshire University | Trainee Sport Psychologist (BPS).