How Athletes Can Stop Choking Under Pressure

How Athletes Can Stop Choking Under Pressure

By Craig Sigl, Mental Toughness Trainer

It’s the 1986 World Series and the Boston Red Sox are winning by 2 runs in the last inning with 2 outs and 2 strikes on the batter. They win this game over the Mets and they win the World Series.  Bill Buckner, the first baseman, has a very easy, slow ground ball hit to him that goes through his legs and goes down as one of the worst chokes of all time.  The Mets rally and go on to win the World Series.

choking-in-baseball-and-sportsOr how about John McEnroe’s choke when in the 1984 French Open, he lost to Ivan Lendl. After leading 2 sets to 0 and not having lost a match all year, McEnroe only needed one more set to win the Grand Slam title.  In the third set, his famous temper tantrum was ignited by a cameraman who was too noisy for him. Right after that, his game fell apart and Lendl won the next 3 to deny McEnroe the win.

Choking. Why does it happen?  Because of fear and too much thinking. What’s the solution?  At game time, the simple solution is to be able to channel all of your mental energy into one action. In other words, the answer is FOCUS.

I’ve heard from a lot of athletes who have trouble focusing when under pressure.  They tell me that a voice in their head starts creating doubts and worries and this triggers a tense or nervous feeling which sets them up perfectly for a choke.

I teach techniques for improving your focus in my Mental Toughness Academy but let me suggest to you right now that you ALREADY have some ability focusing your mind.  You just have to become aware of the fact that you use your focus ability in other areas of your life and that you CAN bring that ability over to competition.

Here’s an example:  I regularly do workshops with youth sports teams for players as young as 11 years old.  At one particular wrestling team talk, I asked the boys if they had any trouble focusing before and during their match and they all raised their hands.

I then asked them, “Who plays video games?” and most of them raised their hand.  I followed this up with, “How long do you need to focus for a wrestling match?”  “About 5 minutes” was the consensus answer.  “And about how long do you play video games for?”  Some of them admitted to playing for hours without being distracted and the parents in attendance attested to that.

I asked a few more detailed questions to find out HOW each young wrestler managed to focus like that for so long and they couldn’t really answer it very well. “But HOW you focus really doesn’t matter now does it?  Don’t even worry about HOW you do it. All you have to do is notice that you do it in one area of your life and decide that you CAN do it again at game time!”

I could almost see the lightbulbs going on in their head when they put two and two together between their video game playing and their wrestling for focus.

Here’s the really great news…. You really only need that focus ability for a short time when under pressure to avoid the choking. You don’t need to focus for an hour like when you play a video game so this should really be easy!  And, you can practice recalling your focus ability in many areas of your daily life. Just notice how you do it and what your thinking is when you DO focus.

Do you focus when watching your favorite TV show?  Do you focus when playing on Facebook?  Do you focus when reading a good book? Aren’t you having as much fun in your sport as playing a video game? See how easy it is that you naturally know how to focus when you’re doing something you enjoy?! This is what keeps that little voice in your head silent.

If  only Buckner had just called on that super focusing ability he had used countless times to field an easy ground ball or if McEnroe had kept his focus when he was up 2-0….

There are endless opportunities for you to practice your mental toughness so that when crunch time comes and the game is on the line, you come through with that trophy raised above your head!

Craig Sigl’s work with youth athletes has been featured on NBC TV and ESPN Sports Radio.  His free ebook: “The 10 commandments for a great sports parent” and also a free .mp3 guided visualization to help young athletes perform under pressure can be found at