How to Eliminate Choking: Beware of Hyperfocus

We’ve all seen it happen, and maybe even experienced it. You finally have a lead–perhaps a sizable one–and, because your brain naturally likes to predict the future–the score flashes in 3D in the front of your brain. Literally, within a split second, your body tightens up, and before you know it, the set, and maybe even the match, feel as if they are out of your hands.

Instinctively, you attempt to fix it, try harder to execute, and, as a result are becoming hyper-focused on your game, I need to hit my forehand more out in front, I need to step in on the return of serve, I need a shorter backswing.” 

You end up losing another heartbreaker to someone you feel you “should” (what I consider to be a six letter swear word in sports) beat. Most importantly, what can we do about this universal experience? Because you are definitely not alone.

It this additional focus on your strokes that actually becomes the real hurdle–a chronic, internal “dance” that haunts you match after match. So, shifting your response to errors, especially in situations when it feels as if you are choking, can improve your game and transform your stress into something more productive. 

Let me share a few nuggets related to this experience so you can understand it better, so you can decrease the frequency of it happening. 

First, choking is a specific phenomenon in which your level suddenly drops dramatically (Cappuccio, et al., 2019). However, it is distinct from other performance-related failures because it has two defining characteristics. The first is that it can only occur if your strokes are, otherwise, technically sound and, by and large, pretty automatic. The second is that choking, ironically, occurs more when you are doing everything you can to prevent choking from happening (Cappuccio, et al.). 

Working together, you can learn how to focus in the right ways and respond to errors to elevate your game. 

Reflect: When I feel like I’m playing poorly, what’s one thing I do that helps me turn my game around?

Research supports that staying loose and staying present in your body without judgment and shifting to external things 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 able to engage in more task-relevant “cues” (i.e. the ball, target, tactic) 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, you can build a new response to those moments when you feel yourself getting tight. 

Whether you are in the middle of a battle on the court or dealing with something challenging off the court, take a moment to reset with a deep breath and then refocus on the immediate task at hand. Ask yourself, “What can I do right now to move me closer to my goal.”

Incremental steps in the right direction will payoff exponentially.