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Choking in sports is a slang term that relates to either an individual athlete or an entire team’s inability to win a competition, or even just do well in a single competition like a game. The term far predates most organized sports teams of today and may have once referred to tests given to women condemned as witches to swallow a communion wafer. If the woman choked, not an unusual occurrence given the stress of being called a witch, and failed to swallow the wafer, she was frequently sentenced to die by burning or hanging.
For the athlete, the fear of damage to his/her career, loss of valuable endorsement contracts, and simply audience perception may be behind choking. Just when the touchdown pass needs to be thrown, the bat needs to hit a homerun, the runner needs to speed across the finish line, or the triple axel landed, the player chokes, or in other words, stresses out to the point where his or her performance is significantly hindered. It’s not uncommon for athletes to experience choking at one time or another in their career, even if they are extraordinarily good at their chosen sport.
Choking may result from athletes who worry inordinately about their performance and who’ve had past experiences of not doing well when it was really needed. Figure skater Todd Eldridge, who did skate beautifully in non-competitive venues typically choked in competition. In fact, in most of his major competitions, you could almost place bets on the fact that he would fall while attempting to land jumps. When you watched him skate, you could see the tension, the anxiety written clearly on his face.
Sasha Cohen, another American figure skater tended to do the same thing in competitions, though she is accounted one of the best figure skaters of the 2000s. In practice routines and exhibitions she was amazing to watch. When it counted though, in actual competitions, her skating quickly fell apart.
Some ways to prevent choking have to do with personal attitude. A player who thinks first of performing for him or herself is likely to choke less. This can be hard to do since fans, coaches and teammates can be very critical or annoyed with a less than perfect performance. Sports psychologists may help people with choking by using guided imagery, helping them learn meditative or self-hypnotic practices that reduce muscle tension. Some athletes listen to music right prior to participating in their sport as a relaxation technique.
One trouble for athletes is extremely negative self-talk that may not be evident on a conscious level. At a subconscious level, core beliefs that the athlete cannot get the job done influence physicality and the ability to perform. Sports psychology can help when players can understand and dismiss these negative core beliefs that cause them to choke.
Despite such understanding, the inordinate pressure of performing at your best is often from the outside as well as from within. Coaches, fans, and corporations can all contribute to choking in an athlete. They all want the athlete to perform at his best, and a player hears them, frequently yelling quite loudly as he or she performs. When this is paired with negative self-talk, choking may be inevitable.
One of the more interesting theories I've come across is that athletes 'learn' their skills to the point where it is stored in the back of their brain along with everyday skills like walking and talking. Essentially they can do it in their sleep.
When the 'crunch time' moment comes however, this knowledge and skill becomes pushed to the front of the brain due to stress and they perform the skill like someone who is only just learning it.
It isn't unique to sport, it just so happens that sport has the most broad-ranging examples.