Mind of Steel – Overcoming Choking

Dr. Stankovich

“Choking” is when you know how to do something and have successfully have done it before, yet in pressure situations you fail because of a lack of focus and execution.  In the game of pool choking is a common occurrence, especially during tournaments when it seems as though the table gets longer and the pockets become smaller.  This month I would like to share with you why choking occurs, and what you can do to minimize choking the next time you play when the stakes are high.

Choking always begins with fear.  Interestingly, for human beings fear can be real (i.e. somebody shooting a gun at you), or irrational (worrying about what somebody might think if I miss this next shot).  Regardless of the source (real or irrational), our bodies respond with anxiety in the same exact way.  In other words, your body doesn’t care if it hears gun shots or is afraid of your opponent standing over the pool table – the physical anxiety (i.e. increased heart rate; tense, tight muscles; and shallow breathing are examples) will be experienced the same exact way.

Once fear kicks into negative anxiety, your mind will begin to exclusively focus on the physical symptoms of nerves (the shallow breathing, increased heart rate, etc) instead of thinking about the shot you need to make on the table in front of you!  From there, most players will start talking to themselves and say things like “don’t screw up,” or “don’t miss this next shot.”  Guess what happens next?  You got it – the shot is missed!  Once your self-talk becomes negative and conservative, you are basically done (Don’t believe me?  Try NOT thinking of as pink elephant and see what happens.  Now go tell yourself NOT to miss the next shot and see what happens).

Once the shot is missed, the player usually experiences more negative energy, more fear, more anxiety, and in some cases the day may end up being lost completely.  It’s amazing all this starts from fear – and irrational fear at that. Think about it – there is no real fear when playing pool, yet how many thousands and thousands of players allow their minds and bodies to experience fear as though they were in fear for their life?!  Seriously, who cares about who you are playing or how many people are watching – they cant take the stick out of your hands and make you miss shots!

If you want to minimize choking, try the following tips:
When you start getting nervous while playing, where is the fear coming from?  Are you worried what somebody will think if you miss?  Are you concerned who is watching you shoot?  If you are feeling any of these kinds of things STOP immediately, stand up, take a few deep breaths and remind yourself you are experiencing irrational fear.
Breathing through your stomach is the best way to immediately calm your body down.  Try taking 2-3 deep belly breaths and watch how your body responds – its pretty amazing.
Self-talk (what you say to yourself) is also a great way to refocus and remain calm in tough situations.  Tell yourself words like “focus” or “stay cool” and your mind and body will respond accordingly.
Once you conquer fear, confidence will take over – leading you to synchrony between your mind and body, experiencing “the zone” more frequently, and positive self-talk (and more wins, too!).

Dr. Christopher Stankovich is a nationally acclaimed expert in Sport & Performance Psychology and the Founder of Advanced Human Performance Systems.  For more information on performance-enhancement products, including the popular  “Mind of Steel for Pool Success” DVD please visit www.drstankovich.com