Conquer Choking: Helping young athletes succeed in crunch time
By Greg Bach
When big moments arrive – and young athletes’ minds are swarmed with negative thoughts and self-doubt – production plummets.
And that dreaded word choking takes hold.
“It’s important to be very clear with your athletes that you’re not born a choker,” says Sian Beilock, a leading cognitive scientist, president of Barnard College and author of Choke. “I think sometimes kids get labeled, or they label themselves, and the truth is we can all learn to perform well in pressure situations. And that’s really important because if you sort of have this feeling as an athlete that ‘I’m a choker’ it ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Beilock is one of the most respected voices on an issue everyone has experienced at some point in their life.
And she’s spent years researching how to perform at our best when the pressure and intensity is ratcheted up.
“I want to understand how we can perform at our best, especially when it matters most,” she says. “We’ve all had experiences where we haven’t put our best foot forward when we wanted to and I want to try and fix that for myself and others.”
Use these insights she shared to help your teams and young athletes excel when the pressure mounts:
UNCOVERING VALUE IN THE PAINFUL MOMENTS
Most young athletes can easily recall a moment where they failed to perform as hoped; and how they navigate those lingering thoughts has long-range implications.
“There’s really interesting research showing that you can actually help athletes reframe those situations where they are thinking ‘I let everyone down and I’m the worst player in the world’ to thinking about what did they do wrong in technical terms,” Beilock says. “Maybe if they are a swimmer, they didn’t get off the blocks quick enough or they weren’t holding their arm in the right position, and now it’s about what are they going to do differently? What’s the one thing they can control and change? And it turns out that when you have small things to focus on that can be really helpful in getting your mind in the right place.”
TACKLING CHOKING WITH YOUR TEAM
Don’t be afraid to talk about choking with young athletes. After all, it’s a part of competing and it happens – to every athlete.
“I think sometimes coaches just want to stay away from it – it’s not even talked about after it happens,” Beilock says. “We know that if we can get athletes to reframe and think differently about a pressure situation, rather than just trying to file it away, you can actually move on from it. So I would address it head on, explaining we all choke and we all perform poorly from time to time. And the question for athletes is how do you change even just one thing you did last time? What improvement can you show?”
CREATE GAME-LIKE CONDITIONS
Help prepare athletes to perform at their best by conducting practices that resemble game day conditions as much as possible.
“Trying to mimic some of the conditions that you’ll see in a game in practice is really important,” Beilock says. “That can be inviting all the parents out to watch a practice. Getting the kids used to what is going to happen will make it less likely that they do choke.”
CRUSHING SELF DOUBT
Devote time talking to athletes about positive attributes that they can frame their pre-game thoughts around.
“Help kids and athletes reframe how they’re thinking so they can remind themselves of why they should succeed this weekend,” Beilock says. “Maybe it was the way they practiced this week, or maybe it’s a success they had in the past. Help them focus on the qualities they are bringing to the table that they can focus on instead of thinking about why they might fail. It actually matters to change your mindset and thinking about why you should succeed versus why you should fail.”
“I think it’s really important to remember that although sports are designed to develop skills and give kids lessons in success and failure, we also want them to have fun,” Beilock says. “And part of having fun is learning how to overcome those scary situations where you don’t perform well. I think we sometimes forget about the fun part of it and that’s a really important part of what kids are doing out there.”
Follow Sian Beilock on Instagram and Twitter.
Two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and World Cup Champion Briana Scurry, author of MY GREATEST SAVE, on managing challenging moments and what young athletes in all sports can do to navigate them and stay focused on the present
Ryan Gareis, former University of South Carolina standout and current forward for the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League, on bringing energy, enthusiasm and a team-first mentality at all times
Orlando Pride midfielder Chelsee Washington, founder of 90/10 Performance Co., on helping young players manage mindsets and build confidence from within to perform at their best
Erica Suter, former soccer standout at Johns Hopkins University and author of THE STRONG FEMALE ATHLETE, on helping female athletes enhance confidence, reduce injuries, and boost performance