Choking under pressure

At every Olympic Games, and at every World Cup, a team or a player chokes under pressure. So far, and this Russian World Cup is only a few days old, we’ve seen top teams fluff opportunities, and sharply accurate shooters like Lionel Messi miss goal chances and even penalties.



Why does it happen? “Choking” can be described as a huge decline in performance, when under pressure. It often happens when they overthink about the outcome, and their skills, which usually run on auto-pilot don’t anymore. They mentally revert to the days when they were perfecting their free kicks, thinking about everything from their run up, to the reaction of their coaches, to the conclusion of their shot. The overthinking is a natural reaction to the huge pressure they are under, carrying the hopes of their nations on their backs.



Human beings need to not have to think about every minute detail of a move, or it won’t end well. Imagine it’s half time, and you, the viewer, decide to make a cup of tea. It’s automatic. But if you start thinking about all the things that you need to do to make that cup of tea, you’ll quite easily start fumbling with the teabags, spill some milk, clatter and bang. If you forget to stop thinking, you’ll choke and ruin that perfect cup of tea.

Ironically though, if you’re a novice, thinking through the steps will improve your performance, but if you’re an expert at it, overthinking will hold you back. This is why when we’re learning a new skill, be it how to take a free kick, or how to serve in tennis, it helps to keep thinking and talking through the moves to yourself. But once you’ve reached the stage of automaticity, or muscle memory, your mind gets overwhelmed by unnecessary thoughts.

It’s important to say that pressure isn’t a bad thing. It can be a motivator for many. How we react to pressure is the key.

So how do we stop the cycle of overthinking and choking?

·      It can be helpful to slow things down, if you can. So maybe, Messi should’ve taken more time before he taken that penalty. A few extra seconds might’ve been enough to settle his thoughts and focus.

·      A pre-performance routine can help. Learn how to create your own.

·      Self-talk. Tell yourself you can do it. Be confident in yourself, and that will help your focus and thought processes.