Choking is one of the biggest fears of many athletes in competitive sports, and it is caused by thinking about the outcome, rather than the process. This causes the explicit (controlled) learning system to dictate the player’s actions.
When the player first learns to hit a ball, they usually think about the skill in a basic and mechanical fashion. Position your feet, set up with your hands, turn your shoulders, take the racket back, step to the ball, and the list goes on.
In contrast, implicit (automatic) learning can be seen as learning without the player's awareness. It is the fine nuances in force, touch, timing and accuracy that the player develops as the abilities grow. High performance athletes have exceptionally developed implicit (automatic) learning systems. Novak Djokovic’s ability to place a shot with perfect precision just over the net, and on to the court, just by his opponent, in a crucial moment of the match is an excellent example of a well-developed implicit system.
Despite all players’ efforts, regardless of their level of play and mental toughness, to concentrate on performance over outcome, there will be occasions when specific results or goals mean so much that pressure will inadvertently rise. Whether it is winning a tournament, beating a nemesis, getting a better ranking, failure of performing at his/her best in such circumstances gives the speculation that the player choked.
In this article, we will describe the process of choking, and look at the physical and psychological sensations that players are most likely to encounter.
As we mentioned earlier, a big match, critical point, improving ranking, try-outs, performing in front of peers, parents, and big crowd, could be perceived as a physical and/or psychological “danger.” As a result, players will experience increased muscle tension, racing heart rate, shallow breathing, inability to focus and a decrease in self-confidence. All of this leads to rushing shots, timing and coordination breakdown, poor decision-making, muscle tightness and soreness, frustration and anger.
Feeling tight, tense, shaky, weak, heavy, tired, rigid, awkward, beaten, scared, weak, dominated, upset, panicked, worried, rushed, confused and overloaded is how players outline their physical and psychological sensations during choking.
There are countless ways both on and off the court to improve emotional control, and help players understand and deal with the choking process. Breathing control, visualization, self-talk, music, relaxation techniques, cognitive strategies, etc.
Coaches and parents could help players identify the optimal arousal stage, needed for peak performance, and teach different strategies to achieve it. Make it easy for players to express and talk about their feelings. Using positive reinforcement in practices and competitive environment increase players confidence. Encourage mistakes to be seen as productive building blocks for future success. Create and practice a game plan, which players can rely on when the pressure rises.
Choking happens when players really care and want to perform well, but does not have the tools to deal with the pressure that builds up. Let’s help them, not label them!
Petar Kanev is Assistant Director of Player Development of CourtSense at TRC. He has been a professional tennis coach since 1995. Petar maintains USPTA P-2 and PTR Professional Level certifications, and received an Etcheberry Certification in Strength, Conditioning and Movement in Sport. Prior to coming to the USA in 2004, Petar was the hitting partner for Maggi Maleeva (Bulgarian former professional tennis player) from 2000-2004 and was the Maleevi Tennis Club Coach and Program Director from 2000-2004.