sports psychologist & clinical psychology

No Fear

Nov 21, 2005 – Choking is universal, says Dr. John F.Murray, a clinical and sport performance psychologist in West Palm Beach Florida (http://www.johnfmurray.com). Everyone has experienced it, even the best athletes in the world such as Tiger Woods will choke occasionally, but he does it less frequently.

Typically with choking, a person perceives the event as extremely important, and their focus turns inward, becoming internal rather than appropriately external, he notes.

Their brain starts firing off too much, causing them to lose that smooth and automatic level of physical skill that usually characterizes their performance. They become much less fluid, not only in their performance, but also in their thinking. They become distracted by those internal sensations and thoughts. Its like tunnel vision. Choking is always a self-inflicted problem.

Having counseled U.S. Olympic springboard diver Michelle Davidson, and many other elite athletes, Dr.Murray is keenly aware of what transpires in pressure situations:

During practice youre just kicking balls, but in the Super Bowl with two seconds left and youre in position to make a winning field goal, an inappropriate focus arises, disrupting motor skills, even though youve done it a million times, and can do it in your sleep. Choking is very much a disorder. Athletes choke on too many thoughts, whereas panic is the exact opposite. In panic you lose all your thoughts. Its a non-thinking process. Choking occurs at a very high level of sophistication in which we over think, over analyze and we over worry. Its a different process then panic, but both lead to performance failure.

Chokings complexity is apparent in a groundbreaking Australian study that found a connection between pre-competitive anxiety and depression. Researchers theorize that many athletes equate happiness with success. Among their conclusions, certain individuals are vulnerable to depression because they utilize inappropriate strategies to set and pursue life goals (e.g., winning a sporting contest) If the athlete believes that happiness and wellbeing are conditional upon goal achievement, any thoughts of goal pursuit will be accompanied by a belief that the individual is not yet happy or content. This negative self-focus…is in turn likely to cause an increase in depression levels.
One of the studys authors, Professor Kerry Mummery, director of the Centre for Social Science Research at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton, Australia, explains the significance of their findings: We believe that goal linking is an often overlooked source of pre-competitive anxiety. High-level athletes who link their happiness to their next level of achievement simply fail to stop and smell the roses. They habituate to the recent success very quickly, set new challenging goals and tell themselves that they will only be happy.

Dr. Mummery and his colleagues drew on the views expressed by participants in the 2001 New Zealand Ironman competition.

Typically, athletes who set conditional goals are more likely to experience high levels of anxiety before competition, which can negatively impact their performance.

For the most part any anxiety is a bad thing, notes Dr. Mummery. Arousal and anxiety are subtly different. Athletes need to achieve their optimal level of arousal to ensure top performance, but anxiety is normally associated with a reduction in performance. Worry or anxiety negatively affects the concentration on the task at hand and has associated physiological responses that impair performance. I agree that maladaptive self-talk is often the basic problem that leads to choking. Focusing on the outcome, rather than the process (I need to make this putt, versus this is what I need to do to make this putt), often leads to sub-par performances in situations where the athlete would normally expect to perform well.

According to Dr. Murray, pre-competitive anxiety is not gender biased, but is more readily apparent in those who exhibit obsessive traits. He identifies the best possible mind set for athletic success: The ideal mental state is to have no fear, and a complete excitement for competition. Love that even above winning. Competition is what you have to love, irrespective of outcome. Easy to say, harder to do.

Let the Head Games Begin:

To help his clients stay cool under pressure, Dr. Murray employs these helpful relaxation techniques and imagery:

Imagine yourself mastering very difficult situations before important competitions: Envision an imaginary miners lamp on top of your head. Choking is when you turn the lamp towards yourself; proper performance is when you turn the beam outward. Rather than get caught up in your thoughts, get focused on the environment.
Utilize a process of self-examination: I talk about chronic and acute causes of anxiety Athletes need to know and understand how arousal and anxiety affects them personally then incorporate a positive habitual routine into their pre-competitive preparation This is done over years of development with the assistance of a good coach.

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.

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