Professional sport is full of stories of elite athletes “choking” emotionally and mentally under the pressure of competition. One famous example is golfer Greg Norman, who was leading the 1994 US Masters by six strokes at the beginning of the final round, but then lost by five strokes to Nick Faldo. And England football teams are well known for their struggles in penalty shoot outs.
But the occasion I remember most vividly was watching the late, great Jana Novotna facing Steffi Graf in the 1993 Wimbledon final. Having dominated the match, and leading the final set 4-1, Novotna served a double fault. After this simple error, Novotna’s match fell apart, and she ended up quickly losing the set 6-4. It was as if someone had flipped a switch, turning her from elite professional into nervous club player.
Many of us who have played a sport can sympathise with the phenomenon of choking. And as a sports psychologist, I am interested in what happens mentally during those crucial moments before catastrophic drops in performance. Understanding the processes and factors involved could allow us to develop ways to help athletes avoid choking, or regain control after it takes hold.
Researchers have shown how performance anxiety can be split into a mental (“cognitive”) component, represented by worry (“I am worried that I may not perform as well as I can”) and self-focused attention (“I am conscious of every movement I make”), and a physiological anxiety represented by arousal (fast heart rate) and tension (feeling on edge).
The ability to respond positively to anxiety reflects the level of control the athlete feels they have over a given situation, and their own response (“I believe I have the resources to meet this challenge”). This perception of control is important, because it reflects whether athletes see the situation as a threat or a challenge, which ultimately might change the way they perform.