Sports performance under pressure
A quick guide on 'choking' in sports

'There are two types of players. Those who keep their nerves under control and win championships and those who do not.'

- The Greatest Game ever Played (2005)

Performing under pressure is an essential skill for elite athletes. Sports performance often has huge financial and sentimental value attached to it. Players stand to gain a lot from winning a particular match than losing it. Also, fans turn up to live sports in large numbers rooting for their team or player to win. These factors create a lot of pressure on the athletes and can lead to poor performance. This substandard performance even when the athlete is skilled enough and willing to execute a particular task is called 'choking'.

Over the years, researchers have tried to explain choking with two theories being the most prevalent - 

1. The distraction based model - The athlete gets distracted with his/her focus shifting on information which is irrelevant to executing the task at hand. For example, a player getting distracted by someone in the crowd or by worrying about failing and it's consequences.

2. The self focus model - The athlete under pressure consciously tries to control every step of a very dynamic movement rather than just monitoring the movement and whether it achieves the needed goal. For example, thinking about and trying to consciously control trunk rotation, shoulder internal rotation, elbow extension and wrist flexion while hitting a smash rather than just hitting a smash!

To counter poor performance under pressure, a large body of research has focused on developing training interventions to help players cope with pressure. Let's take a look at a few of these.

Researchers trying to solve distraction based choking have found the use of pre-performance routines (PPRs) to be the most effective. These are aimed to prevent distraction by consciously focusing on task-relevant processes. PPRs include a set of actions/behaviours that the athlete performs  before starting to execute a particular movement. For example, aiming to improve performance under pressure of second serves in tennis , researchers developed a PPR involving looking at the ball, 2-3 deep breaths, 8 ball bounces and focusing on the area where they were looking to serve. Athletes over time, also develop such small individual routines on their own. For example, in the video below Australian cricketer Steve Smith describes his routine before he faces every ball.


Researchers trying to solve the self focus model have also tried multiple methods to train athletes to perform under pressure by shifting their focus to something which is irrelevant to actual the movement execution. Most of these interventions are related to how athletes learn a particular skill. Rather than training to learn a new skill with explicit verbal instructions, it has been found that learning dynamic movements implicitly (learning without conscious awareness of the particular steps of a process) is a more robust way of learning a skill that needs to be performed under pressure. Some other methods used include the 'Quiet Eye' training (fixing your gaze on on a relevant target prior to movement execution) or using a dual task (performing another task simultaneously like saying a cue word out loud, thinking of a favourite song or colour) or using left hand contractions (squeezing a soft ball in your left hand while performing a skill with your right). 

Thus, researchers have tried different methods to get players used to performing under pressure and prevent choking in multiple sports. In badminton, players can also benefit from individualized PPRs or by using some intervention while training as well. However, it is important to ensure that whatever method is used is repeated over time and regularly practised before utilizing it in a real match scenario.

Let's end with the following scenario - You are serving at 18-15 down in the third set of the BWF world championships final. The crowd holds it's breath and focuses on you. What would you do to cope with pressure?

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