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What Causes Athletes to Choke in High Pressure Situations?

The MLB postseason is my favorite time of the year when it comes to sports. This year has included both a crazy number of come-from-behind victories, and historic slumps. As is to be expected, this has prompted a lot of talk from baseball analysts about the role of postseason experience, momentum, and choking. When a great player suddenly performs very poorly in the spotlight, it’s easy to say, “Oh, he totally CHOKED.” But what does that really mean, and how can that knowledge help YOU perform better in big games?

What Really Happens to Your Body When You “Choke?”

Softball players, baseball players, and all athletes really, have a tendency to be superstitious.You probably have something—even if it’s small—that you rely on come game time, whether it’s an unwashed visor, a pair of lucky socks, or something you do in your batting stance. I’m no exception; back in high school, we once lost two games in a row when I ate sunflower seeds, and I never ate them again! When you’re performing poorly and things are unraveling around you, part of what makes that so scary is that you often don’t know what factors are involved, and you don’t know where to turn to make things right. I think that’s why what follows had such a strong effect on me; understanding choking on a scientific level took that mystery away.

Last year while I was on a road trip, I listened to the audiobook of What The Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, a collection of extremely enlightening essay-like short stories by Malcom Gladwell. One of them explained the psychological and physiological differences between panicking and choking. When you find yourself in an emergency situation and you truly panic, your survival instinct takes over and influences your actions. When you choke in a high pressure situation, on the other hand, what goes on is kind of the opposite, and a bit more complex. As soon as I heard about it, I immediately recognized these characteristics in my pitching students whose performance declines in games as compared to lessons.

The Four Stages of Mastery

A popular learning theory is that the mastery of any skill happens in four stages. Let’s break them down:

  • Stage 1: unconscious incompetence. You’re a beginner, you can’t perform the skill, and you either don’t know what you’re doing wrong, or you think you’re doing it right when you’re not. Sound familiar? Think back to when you just started playing softball. Despite your efforts, I bet your days were filled with strike outs, dropped pop-ups, grounders through the legs, and pitches over your catcher’s head. That was stage 1.
  • Stage 2: conscious incompetence. After you’ve been doing something for a while—let’s use hitting as an example—you’re probably still not very good at it, but you begin to understand the mistakes you’re making. Maybe you know you’re not using your legs enough in your swing, but your body still isn’t quite strong enough to fix that.
  • Stage 3: conscious competence. Finally, you’re doing it right! BUT, you have to think pretty hard about it. When you really concentrate on your swing mechanics, you make good contact. But if you’re tired or distracted, your mechanics tend to break down.
  • Stage 4: unconscious competence. Your coaches are all trying to get you to this stage, which is achieved when you’ve practiced the correct mechanics so much that your muscle memory totally takes over and you don’t have to think at all in order to perform the skill correctly. As a hitter at this stage, you don’t have to worry about swinging correctly anymore, so now you can use all your mental energy recognizing balls and strikes and different types of pitches.

So what happens when you choke? In high pressure situations, a stage 4 athlete suddenly reverts to stage 3. But how?

Memory is very complex, and different types of memory can be triggered by different things. Ever encounter a familiar smell that suddenly brings on a memory that you hadn’t thought about in a really long time? That’s one type of memory trigger. Here’s another: when you’re out on the field in a big game and you’re a bit nervous, you start thinking. You want to make sure you perform well, and instinct tells you to think before you leap. However, once you start thinking too much, you’re no longer in stage 4, which is unconscious competence, and the highest level of mastery. The thinking triggers your muscle memory from stage 3, which is a lower level of mastery. If things get REALLY out of hand, you can even revert to stage 2! You start thinking about your mistakes, you become conscious of your incompetence, and your body remembers that stage of learning.

So while the trigger may be mental, a lot of what goes on when you start choking in a big game is actually physical. Your muscle memory really reverts to earlier stages of your development, which is why it’s not so easy just to talk yourself out of a jam.

My advice? Don’t think! I know that’s easier said than done, but hopefully understanding what happens to your body in these situations eliminates some confusion and helps you feel more in control.

About the author

Carly

Carly is a windmill pitching specialist and co-founder of Fastpitch Power. She has coached teams at every level from 10U to NCAA. She also designed and built fastpitchpower.com. Please feel free to leave questions and site feedback in the comments or via our contact page!

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