How to Eliminate Choking On and Off The Court

We’ve all seen it happen, and maybe even experienced it. You are dominating your opponent and suddenly you miss a few “easy” shots. Instinctively, you attempt to fix it, try harder to execute, and then, become hyper-focused on your technique, “I need to get the ball deeper, accelerate more, don’t take such a big backswing.” But, it is this additional focus on your strokes, and even worse, the alarm at the sudden anxiety that has begun to literally electrocute you–an internal “tug of war” that sends you down the rabbit hole. 

As I am sure you know, amateur players are not the only ones to choke. We see it all the time in the pros. You are certainly not alone.

Therefore, I strongly encourage you to work on shifting your response to errors and the anxiety that ensues, especially in situations when it feels as if you are “choking.” A similar process can work off the court, too. 

So how do we move the needle toward a more productive response under pressure?

First, we need to understand it. Choking is a phenomenon that reflects a notable drop in performance (Cappuccio, et al., 2019). However, it is distinct from other performance-related failures because of two defining characteristics. The first is that a player must have mechanics that are, on margin, relatively automatic (if you are 4.0, I would say that you fall into this camp). The second is that “choking,” ironically, often occurs more when players are doing everything they can to actually prevent it from happening (Cappuccio, et al.).

Research supports that maintaining an external focus, in particular–keeping your attention on task-relevant cues (i.e. the ball, tactics, breath) staying loose, and staying present in your body without judgment, are effective focusing habits that can disrupt this tendency to hyper-focus during competition. The less you technically overthink your errors, the more likely you will be to engage in these more task-relevant “cues” which will, not surprisingly, lead to some of your best performances.

By training yourself to not overly focus on the mechanical aspects of your game during matchplay, and accepting the anxiety that follows a routine error when the score is close, you will be putting yourself in the driver’s seat in these situations, which will be a big boon to your confidence. 

Lastly, in many respects, I believe tennis is a microcosm of life, and strategies that we use on the court can help in pressure moments off the court as well. Whether you are giving a presentation at work, talking to someone you just met at a party or you are having a difficult conversation at home, take your focus off of yourself–how you might be coming across, assessing your level of anxiety while speaking or the other people’s reactions at the moment–and engage in what is relevant. Usually, when we go inside under pressure, for too long, the rabbit hole begins to widen.

So trust yourself, engage with the task at hand and let go of your overacting ego, by using the pause button on the remote control in your mind.



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