Sports performance at a high level often boils down to the last moments of competition to dictate a winner. A penalty shootout to advance to the final, a golf putt to claim that first trophy, scoring those two basketball free throws to ice the game. In these scenarios, although elite athletes practice the correct technique over and over again, the pressure and importance of the situation can inhibit the athlete from executing the skill properly when the time arises (Otten, 2009). This is often seen in situations when the athlete has to perform a stationary shot. For example a basketball free throw, a golf putt, a football penalty kick, Archery and Darts. But why? Why does choking occur in these situations and how can athletes positively change their results? In this article, this concept of stationary shooting and pressure is discussed. An evaluation of why there is a difference between stationary performances in training and in competition will be explained and how individuals can better prepare for these pressurised situations.
There is a preconceived notion within sports that stationary shooting success should be identical to the success experienced within competition. This is because these skills are practised the exact same way in training as required in competition, so you would think nothing should change in competition. With no oppositional threat in these situations, this can be perceived to be the case, however chocking in these scenarios still occur (Masters & Maxwell, 2008). For example, in the community shield clash between Liverpool and Manchester City, both sides played exceptional. Man City was dominant in the first half. However, in the second half, Liverpool took back the momentum and clawed their way back into the game, with after 90 minutes the score being 1-1. It went to penalties where everyone handled the pressure well except one player, Georginio Wijnaldum, who missed his penalty, costing Liverpool the match and the trophy.
Stationary shooting tasks in any sport require intricate body movements to produce the correct technique. Often known as the game within the game, these skills place a high physical demand on the athlete, suggesting mastery of this skill is required for it to be successfully performed consistently. From developing skills to mastery, as skill level increases, the amount of attention which needs to be placed on the skill decreases (Taylor & Ivry, 2012).
When under pressure, these same mastered skills could be executed poorly, by the athlete reinvesting conscious focus into the execution of the skill (Jackson, Ashford, & Norsworthey, 2006). For example, a golfer trying to consciously control their feet positioning, grip and position of the putter and bodily movement of the golf stroke, instead of automatically performing this. By athletes consciously trying to control already mastered skills, it slows down and disrupts the processes in which the skill can be executed, causing a decrease in performance (Wulf, Shea, & Park, 2001). Another way this poor execution could occur is through athletes focusing on threatening stimuli. Staring into the crowd before taking that game-tying free throw, or listening and dwelling on the comments made by the opposing player before picking up your bow and arrow for your shot. By focusing on these threatening stimuli, anxiety can increase and disrupt the fluidity of movement necessary to successfully perform the skill. Not only have we seen this countless amount of times in competition, but previous research has also confirmed this in a basketball free throw and golf putting shooting tasks (Wilson, Vine, & Wood, 2009).
This is why stationary shooting success differs between training and competition. Pressure and how the athlete handles it. Handle this negatively and you’ll probably see that athlete on the front page of the newspapers the next day detailing his ‘terrible’ performance. Handle this positively and they would be celebrated for years to come. This was the case in world Paralympics championship, where Eric Bennett was down 5-1. with the end drawing near, he was able to handle the pressure and provide an amazing comeback victory; becoming a popular story within the archery community.
Pressure within these scenarios is always going to be there, however, both reasons highlighted to why pressure negatively affects athletes have one prevailing theme; focus. Where your focus goes, your technique flows. By negatively placing your focus on a stimulus, poor performance is more likely to occur. On the other hand, by positively steering this focus, positive actions are more likely to occur. Here are some recommendations for athletes and coaches of how to positively steer focus in these situations.
Coaches who are teaching athletes stationary shooting techniques and helping athletes get this technique to an elite level. By only instructing athletes to repeat the technique over again, this may help in mastering the technique, but this will not help when athletes have to perform the technique in pressured situations. By applying different forms of practise in training sessions, this would help in both mastering the skill and success in pressured situations. Suggested through positive results in previous research, examples of these include filming athletes during practise, facilitating pressure-induced simulations and using ‘Quiet eye’ (Beilock, Wierenga, & Carr, 2002; Vine & Wilson, 2010). Quiet eye refers to a pause an athlete makes just before they initiate the skilled movement, where their eyes are focused on the target. These suggestions normalise the competitive environment for the athlete, enabling them to perform more comfortably and accurately during those high pressured moments (Davids, Araújo, Shuttleworth, & Button, 2003).
For athletes who have already learned their stationary shooting technique but are failing to successfully execute this, psychological skills can be used to help in these pressured situations. Suggested through positive research results (Wulf & Su, 2007; Zachry, Wulf, Mercer, & Bezodis, 2005), this could be done by adopting an external focus of attention. An external focus (as opposed to an internal focus) directs the athletes’ attention away from the basic steps of the skill, enabling a smooth execution of the skill. This can be seen for example if an athlete focuses on the back of the basketball rim when performing a free throw or by an athlete focusing on the hole when putting in golf. Adopting an external focus goes hand in hand with the technique quiet eye as this technique places an external focus of attention on the task (Vine & Wilson, 2011). This is a psychological technique which athletes of all abilities can use. Also remember, with anything, the more you use it, the more comfortable and confident you will become in using it in pressured situations.
In conclusion, competitions frequently come down to making that last free throw, scoring that penalty, or scoring that putt to win the game. This can pressure the athlete, raising the difficulty of a skill which has been performed time after time; despite the skill not having to be altered when in competition. If not handled properly, this can resort in the athlete chocking. However research has found multiple techniques which could aid in these scenarios, presenting an efficient strategy to successfully perform the skill whilst under pressure. Although results of using these techniques vary depending on the athlete and sport, the application of these techniques increases the likelihood of performance success. Not only that, but it reduces the likelihood of seeing your face on the front page of tomorrows newspaper in a negative light so make sure you focus. Where you focus goes your technique flows.