Why Do Athletes Choke Under Pressure?

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Rodrigo Pacheco Carrillo
Aalborg Sportshøjskole
Aalborg - Denmark 2009

Humanistic Project - Elite Badminton Coach Education








Theory related to the ´Choking Phenomenon´




Why do some athletes choke during crucial moments in important competitions?




How can they mentally work to avoid these situations during their games?







Humanistic Project | Why do athletes choke under pressure?


Nowadays not only external factors can determinate the performance of an athlete, we have noticed that many times an athlete is performing his best, but suddenly he ´freezes´. The increased stress of competitions can cause athletes to react both

physically and mentally in a manner that can negatively affect their performance abilities. They may become tense, their heart rates rise, they worry about the outcome of the competition, they find it hard to concentrate on the task in hand, in other words, they panic.

In the last few years the interest in the field of Sports Psychology have been increasing notoriously; that interest have been orientated in the development of techniques that athletes can use in competitions to achieve their best performance. Athletes have been learning these techniques, i.e. know how to maintain focus, relax, motivated, controlled, confident, etc. But even that some of the top athletes in the world had succeed in the task of learning these techniques, we still can see that in the crucial moments of a competition seems that all the learning processes are forgotten, therefore the athletes just ´freeze´ or what in psychology we call, they ´choke´.

In this project I’m going to explain different situations when this has happen; when some athletes have been performing in their best way, but from nowhere and without awareness that performance suddenly blocked, and they lost many points in a row or even the whole game.

To be able to make this research I have gone to an International Badminton Tournament in Stockholm-Sweden, where I have been talking to some of the top badminton players in Europe to get some feedback, to try to understand what is happening in their heads as these athletes have been telling me about if they have ever experience these situations and what they have done to fix the problem.

Humanistic Project | Why do athletes choke under pressure?


Choking has been defined as suboptimal performance under pressure circumstances despite a high degree of achievement motivation1. What causes

accomplished and experienced athletes to ´choke´ under the many pressures of competition? Athletes who routinely carry out learned, automatic sensor motor skills have long been affected by the mysterious phenomenon of ´chocking´.

What we can see from the outside is that some factors may affect the athlete´s performance; this could be either inner or outer factors. Some of the inner factors that could decrement the performance of the athlete are for example the importance of achieving a success, expectations of negative consequences, their anxiety of performing well in the competition, etc. In the other hand we have to consider that external factors have a big effect on the athlete´s performance as well, some of this factors can be find from the presence of supporters in the game, rewards to be gained, home or away advantage, the magnitude of the championship, public expectations, among others.

Optimal performance usually involves an unconscious execution of well trained skills; when a skilled task becomes automatic, the performance is normally efficient, reliable, inflexible and relatively effortless. To perform well on complex tasks, athletes should focus their attention on certain aspects of their task without consciously attending to other elements that...
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