Choking on Anxiety (in Sports and in Life)

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor…[It] is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” Anne Lamott (from Bird by Bird)  

​During the Panther’s victory over the Texans last week, I was thinking about the kicker, Joey Slye, who was signed by the Texans after being cut from the Panthers for missing a worrisome number of field goals and extra points. Arguably, he lost his job because he cracked under pressure. In a word, he choked. 

​Because I feel tremendous sympathy for chokers—and have been known to choke myself in many lower-stakes situations than Slye encounters as a professional athlete—I applauded when Slye drilled a 53-yarder against his former team in the 4th quarter. This late in the game, Slye’s success did not threaten the Panther’s handy lead. So, at the end of the game, I was able to celebrate both Slye’s underdog triumph and yet another Panther’s victory—all in all, not a bad night.

​The evening got me thinking about the psychology of “choking,” which is a term we most commonly apply to elite athletes and top performers but is in fact relevant to anyone who has performed suboptimally because of anxiety (hand raised). By taking a moment to understand how and why we choke, we can learn how to perform at our best—even when the pressure is on.

What is choking and why do we choke? 

​In Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, the Psychology Researcher Sian Beilock explains how anxiety negatively impacts performance for top performers and average Joes alike.

​According to Beilock, one reason we choke is that the cognitive energy we expend worrying (or trying not to worry) is diverted from the task at hand. For example, if Slye is preparing for a game-ending kick, and his mind is full of intrusive thoughts about all of the terrible things that might happen if he misses—disgrace, unemployment, poverty, whatever his worst fears—then he is not giving his undivided attention to scoring that field goal. And with a divided and distracted mind, he cannot perform at his best.

​If one reason we choke is because our cognitive energy is divided by worry, another reason has to do with the way we respond to that worry. When the stakes are high and we are worried about the consequences of failure, we naturally become extra careful and thus more self-conscious of all we are doing. But this kind of excessive caution is actually counterproductive—it makes us perform worse.  

​As Beilock explains, when we are first learning a new skill, it is helpful to focus on all of the tiny details required for successful execution. But if you’ve been practicing the skill for a long-time, all of these small steps become synthesized as part of our unconscious or “procedural knowledge.” Certainly, Slye has been kicking field goals for a very long time—he is an expert, not a novice. His knowledge of how to kick field goals has been synthesized in his unconscious over his entire career. So now, if he thinks too microscopically about how to kick a field goal—if, for example, he tries to hold in his mind everything that he has learned about how to angle his toe and plant his heel and rotate his hip and correct for the wind and swing his opposite arm—then he will cut himself off from his unconscious knowledge and, inevitably, perform beneath his full potential. In other words, he will choke.

​When we understand choking in this light—as trying to achieve through conscious thought what is best performed unconsciously—we begin to see choking everywhere (or at least, everywhere there is anxiety). Insomnia, social awkwardness, sexual dysfunction, poor decision-making, perfectionism: each of these manifestations of anxiety involves an attempt to exert conscious control over an unconscious process. They are all varieties of choking.

​Consider social awkwardness. In some cases, social awkwardness results from genuine deficits in social skills. But just as often, it is the result of losing access to social skills that an anxious person has already unconsciously mastered. This is why persons with social anxiety often say that when they are feeling anxious, they do not “act like themselves.” (By the way, the leading book on social anxiety is called, How to be Yourself.) And they are correct: socially anxious persons are not their best selves when they are anxious. Like Slye’s kicking knowledge, our social skills are stored in our unconscious. We have been learning and refining these skills our entire lives. If we try to exert conscious control over our social performance—by focusing too hard on what we’re going to say, or when to jump into a conversation, or how to hang our arms, or how loud to laugh—then we will become stiff and stilted and fail to live up to our complete social potential. 

​In other words, we will choke.

How do we keep from choking?

​Beilock offers many tips for overcoming choking. I summarize five of my favorites here and end by adding one of my own:

1. Write down your worries. If your mind is full of worries, one way to get these worries out of your mind is by writing them down. While it might seem that journaling about your worries will only make them stick in your mind more, this is a misconception. In fact, it is not by expressing but rather suppressing our thoughts that they get stuck in our minds. As Jung said, “What we resist, persists.”

2. Practice Positive Visualization. While journaling can help empty our minds of negative thinking, visualization can be used to fill up our imaginations with optimistic content. To practice positive visualization, get in a quiet space, close your eyes, and take a minute or more to vividly imagine an ideal outcome.

3. Don’t slow down. If you’re nervous about giving a big speech in the afternoon, resist the urge to clear your morning schedule (unless you actually need all that time to prepare). By slowing down to give that important task all of the attention it deserves, we tempt ourselves into overthinking the challenge.

4. Train your attention. Meditation trains our attention—it teaches us to focus on the task at hand rather than being distracted by irrelevant thoughts. In Charlotte, there are many places to learn meditation and mindfulness. If you don’t know where to begin, you might start with the popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course.

5. Find a keyword. If you find yourself becoming conscious of details that you already know unconsciously, you can decrease this self-consciousness by focusing on a keyword that encapsulates the entire activity. For swinging a golf club, for instance, you might focus on the word “smooth.” Focusing on a word that cues holistic thinking about an activity taps into our unconscious knowledge and guards against the kind of microscopic self-consciousness that causes choking.

6. Cultivate an attitude of playfulness. As the epigraph suggests, the deepest solution to choking is to stop trying so hard. Anne Lamott evokes the image of a person (I imagine a child) carelessly and playfully skipping across stones. But how do you stop trying so hard? In my own life, I’ve found that describing stressful activities to myself as “play” and “adventure” is helpful in this regard. “Playing at having a job interview.” “The adventure of giving a big speech.” By thinking of life’s challenges as forms of play, we can learn to enjoy rather than always trying to master life—which is, paradoxically, the key to mastery. Easy does it.

Daniel Crow, Ph.D., is a staff writer and clinical intern for Matone Counseling and Testing. He earned a doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin and is completing his Master’s in Counseling from Wake Forest University.