Why Do Athletes Choke? A Psychologist’s View

Why Do Athletes Choke? A Psychologist’s View

The feeling of choking in sport is gut-wrenching. It’s a horrible panic that takes hold when an athlete is blocked from performing properly, in a way they might have done countless times before.

It’s a phenomenon that even the best of athletes can experience and sports psychologist Mark Williams has spent years researching it.

Williams famously uses the example of Scott Boswell, a former professional cricketer, to explain how a sporting nightmare can unfold.

In 2001, Boswell played in a national final for Leicestershire at Lord’s. It was the biggest game of his life and as an opening bowler he was expected to set the tone for his team.

Boswell had been through a rough patch of form leading up to the match and was told he was playing 45 minutes before the start of play - preparation that hardly filled him with confidence.

His second over started with a wide ball. Suddenly the batsmen looked as though he was 50 yards away. Another wide followed. And another.

The over lasted an embarrassing 14 balls in total. Just watching it on YouTube can be enough to make anyone’s stomach turn at the thought of the embarrassment. Boswell said it took him 10 years to get over.

Its common belief that the mentality to avoid such harrowing situations and instead thrive under pressure is God-given. But Williams disagrees. “Interventions designed to increase mental toughness can improve athletes’ performances,” he says. “The more players practise, the more automated aspects of their movements become, helping athletes to manage anxiety and heighten focus.”

It’s through deliberate practice, Williams says, that the competition conditions are recreated as much as possible. By getting used to operating under pressure, athletes will then be less likely to choke in the important moments.

Instead, they can enter what he calls a flow state. A flow state occurs when the mind is intensely focused and absorbed in the event, much like the experience of athletes who say they are barely thinking when they perform at their best. That’s because their brains are solely focused on the task at hand and they’re completely oblivious to other emotions or thoughts.

The key takeaway is that by practising your event under intense conditions, you can properly prepared to master it mentally.