Opinion: The psychology of choking during competition, or any high stress event
(This is an editorial piece. An editorial, like a news article, is based on fact but also shares opinions. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not associated with our newsroom.)
When I was a kid, my father and I used to watch ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I remember the opening to that show featured a video of ice skaters and a ski jumper choking during competition. The voice-over said, “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
I thought of the agony of defeat when I saw the defending Olympic champion Mikaela Shiffrin miss a gate in the giant slalom this week. She has several more events to come, and I have every faith in her and her ability to shake that off and do well in those events.
But it got me thinking about what happens to athletes at this level of competition who, for whatever reason, don’t perform at their normal level of excellence when it counts.
And not just athletes, but musicians and politicians, speakers and dancers, performers of all kinds, who at the crucial moment – choke. They’ve done the routine a thousand times, given the speech a hundred times before, but at the critical moment, the words just won’t come.
Dr. Sian Beilock is a psychologist and researcher into the science behind choking. She’s investigated who is more likely to choke, and what you can do to try to prevent choking.
She explains in her book Choke, What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, that the highest performing people are the most susceptible to choking.
She’s even gone as far as to say the smartest people choke more because when they worry, it takes away some of their natural advantages.
I felt terrible for the American-born figure skater, Zhu Yi, who is now living in and skating for China. She fell twice in her short program and is being treated terribly on social media.
I worry about the pressure put on these athletes, put there by their countries, by social media, by themselves. One of the things Dr. Beilock recommends to try to prevent choking is to practice under pressure. Practice while being filmed, under time pressure, while media is watching, and in competition, as much as possible.
One final thing I’ll mention. The people who are more likely to choke are the ones who just can’t stand the thought of losing.
If the focus is all about winning, you are a prime candidate for choking. Focus on the journey, on the joy of competition, on the beauty all around you, and the victory may find its way to you.
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