How to Avoid Choking While Trading

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Super Bowl Psychology: Why Athletes “Choke”–and How to Avoid It

Putting too much conscious thought into an automatic action can derail it

  • By Catherine Caruso on February 3, 2020

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In football there are few plays more thrilling than a last-second field goal attempt: both teams line up with the clock one or two ticks from zero. The ball is snapped and the crowd roars as the kicker charges forward in an effort to drive the ball through the yellow uprights, the fate of his team hanging in the balance. Yet why do some kickers rise to the challenge whereas others choke under pressure? It may have more to do with their mental state than physical ability, one psychologist says.

“Choking” is a term that has seeped into the vernacular to describe those big moments when athletes—or any individuals in a stressful situation—are unable to perform well under pressure. Choking, however, has little to do with failing to pull off the unbelievable (a 60-yard field goal in a blizzard, for example) nor does it describe a random off-day, performance-wise. Rather, Sian Beilock, a neuroscientist who authored the 2020 book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have to, defines the phenomenon as a “worse performance than you’d expect given someone’s skills and experience, precisely because they find the situation to be pressure-filled or stressful.” For example, a kicker taking the field during a big game and bungling an easy 25-yard field goal he had made thousands of times before. So what happens when someone chokes?

Beilock tackled this question in a 2008 study where she asked novice and expert golfers to either take their time in performing a series of golf putts or putt as quickly as they could. The novices struggled when they tried to putt quickly whereas the experts’ performance was worse when they took their time. This led Beilock to conclude that when athletes become really skilled at performing a task, they start undertaking parts of it outside conscious awareness—they go on autopilot. When they are under pressure, however, anxiety starts to creep in, pushing them to focus harder in an attempt to perform better. That is when things begin to unravel. “They start thinking too much about aspects of what they’re doing that should just run outside of conscious awareness,” Beilock says, “and it actually disrupts them.” For those of us who are not expert athletes, Beilock offers a different example: walking down a flight of stairs. “[If] I asked you to think about what you were doing with your knee,” she says, “you’d likely fall on your face.”

This shift originates in the brain: The cerebellum, the area below and behind the cerebrum responsible for motor control, coordinates complex actions when we are on autopilot. But as soon as we start focusing on the individual steps, the cerebral cortex, which controls higher-order conscious thought, takes over and we stumble into trouble.

When it comes to high-pressure athletic situations such as those found in championship playoff games, the Super Bowl is near the top of the list. Last year 75,000 people filled Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., to watch the Denver Broncos take on the Carolina Panthers, and some 112 million tuned in from home. And although some Super Bowls are won by comfortable leads or blowouts, others turn on razor-thin margins (five of the last 15 Super Bowls have been decided by three points or less). These conditions set the stage for choking, and Beilock says that placekickers may be particularly susceptible. “You could have the game on your shoulders, all eyes are on you [and] you have some time, often, to dwell on what you’re about to do,” she explains, “and that could be a good recipe for disaster.”

Take former San Diego Chargers player Nate Kaeding, who ended his nine-season NFL career as the second-most accurate field goal kicker in history—he made 86.2 percent of his total attempts. And yet in the playoffs, his percentage dropped to 53.3 percent. In one notorious playoff game he had three misses, including 36- and 40-yard kicks he had not missed all season. His performance seems to be the very definition of choking under pressure.

Then there are other kickers who consistently come through in a tight spot. Adam Vinatieri, just off his 21st NFL season, has scored more crucial field goals than any other kicker in history, including 82.4 percent in playoff games, earning him a slew of admiring nicknames such as “Automatic Adam”, “Iceman” and “Mr. Clutch.” Yet is anyone born a clutch player? According to Beilock, probably not.

“My work really suggests that there is a toolbox of techniques that we can use to perform better in stressful situations,” she says, “And some people happen to utilize those better than others. But I think it’s something that can be learned.” She suggests practicing skills under pressure, in conditions close to those of the actual event. “That means for everyday people, if you’re going to be playing in front of your friends and family, you should probably practice that way, too,” she says. She also recommends not dwelling on the task ahead of time, adding that it can be helpful to distract yourself by singing a song or repeating a key word: “Something that takes your mind off the mechanics of what you’re doing.” Her work has shown that in high-stress situations, the best athletes are able to succeed by focusing on the overall outcome rather than on the individual steps.

On Sunday when the New England Patriots face off against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, placekickers Stephen Gostkowski and Matt Bryant will inevitably spend most of the night on the sidelines, waiting to be called upon in the highest-stakes moments to perform for a few vital seconds. They both have the physical ability to get the job done—their battle to succeed will happen largely in their brains. And as they take the field, millions of people will be waiting with bated breath for the answer to an age-old question: Will they choke?

Choking – and how to avoid it

Learn how to reduce your nerves

Saturday, September 17, 2005

by Greg Letts – an Australian state coach, an International Umpire and one of the top ranked players in his country.

Nerves, or ‘choking’ as it is commonly known, will affect just about every table tennis player at some point in their career. But what is it that makes some of us more prone to it than others? And can we reduce our tendency to ‘choke’?

Avoiding the choke – things to do in practice

Train hard to improve your overall standard – notice how you always have less nerves when you are playing someone below your level and you are confident you will win? So the better you get, the more opponents will be below you in level, and the less you will get nervous.

When practicing – play for money/drinks, table hire etc to help get used to playing under pressure. Please note that I am not advocating gambling for children here – kids can do other things such as the loser doing pushups – good for the fitness too!

Be realistic about your standard – don’t expect to play at a higher level than you really are – also don’t expect to be slack and lazy in training and then play great in your matches. You aren’t going to play any better than you train.

Train hard with intensity – so that your training is just as hard and important as your matches – this will make your matches easier to play. Your training should be focussed and intense, while your matches should be enjoyable. The matches are where you benefit from all that hard training, you should be relaxed and enjoying yourself while playing – just like when you first started – if you can remember that far back!

Training is where you push yourself hard and find your limits and what you can and can’t do at the moment – matches are where you play up to your limits, but not trying to push too far beyond them – so playing matches should be easier than doing training. If they are not, you are doing things the wrong way around!

Remember, you’ve spent your time training to loop, hit, chop etc – and play a certain style. It makes no sense to do all that hard work and then go out and play another way just because you are nervous. Make the most of all that training and play your matches the same way – if you are going to lose go down playing the way that you dreamed of and have worked at – don’t be too scared to do anything. Trust me, it’s much better to sit back afterwards and think ‘Well, I was nervous but I tried to play the right game regardless, but I wasn’t good enough today,’ compared to ‘I tightened up and started to play too safe – maybe if I had played the way I know I should I might have won!’ You’ll have a much better peace of mind.

Try to reflect on what was different between the times when you got to the quarters and semis, compared to the times you lost early on. Poor warming up, rushing to get to the match, taking early opponents too easy, etc can all help cause inconsistent performance. Even going out late the night before, or drinking too much or not getting enough sleep can all affect your level of play. If you can find a common factor in your poor performance, try to get rid of it or avoid it where possible.

One thing I find is the more I train, and the better I train, the less nervous I get. I know exactly how good (or bad!) I am playing, and how well I will play when I get into my match. When you don’t play often you never really know what to expect on any day, and this can make you nervous, since you are never quite sure how you will play on the day.

  • Visualise playing matches while training – imagine that you are playing in the World Championships finals. If you do a good job, you will feel your heartbeat quicken and your tension rise as your body responds to the mental image – once that happens, practice calming yourself back down while still playing hard.
  • Avoiding the choke – reducing your nerves before the match

    Be prepared – no last minute rush getting to the match. Give yourself plenty of time to get there, report in, and warm up thoroughly. You want to be calm and unhurried before your match, not stressed and rushing around in a panic.

    Be thoroughly warmed up – a cold body is more prone to stiffness and freezing up. You want your body, and especially your wrist, hand and arm, to be warm and loose. The usual rule of thumb is to warm up until you get a light sweat going. If you are sweating but your hands are still cold, start wearing gloves and doing more upper body warming up (ie shadow boxing, shadow play etc).

    If it is mainly before matches that you are getting tight and nervous, avoid anything that over-excites you, such as caffeine in coffee or energy drinks, nicotine from cigarettes, too much loud rock music etc. Listen to soothing music, use self hypnosis, or try deep, rhythmic breathing etc to calm down instead.

    If you sit and worry about upcoming matches too much, go and chat with friends or listen to music to take your mind off the match. If you need time to calm down by yourself, make sure that no-one bothers you before a match. Copy the tennis players and put your towel over your head if you have to so that you can be left alone to calm yourself.

    Avoiding the choke – things to do during your match

    Take slow, deep breaths to smooth out your breathing and your nerves/game. When you get nervous you tend to breathe quickly and shallowly, so by keeping your breath slow and deep you will help fight off the tension.

    When starting the match, ease into things gently. Start off just trying to do the basics really well for the first half of the first game. Once you have hit a few balls well and are into the match, start increasing the power in your game.

    Keep moving – stay on the balls of your feet – stay loose and DON’T stand still.

    Concentrate on your tactics and what you are doing right, how you are going to stay loose etc. Don’t focus on your nerves or getting tight. Stick to thinking about what you are doing well, so that you are keeping positive thoughts in your brain.

    Repeat to yourself – “loose” – while moving around lightly on your toes.

    Study your opponent, it’s quite likely that he is getting nervous too – which makes you even.

    During training, find your natural playing rhythm that you play best at – and then make sure that you stick to this rhythm during a match – don’t let your opponent force you to play faster or slower.

    Routines – having little routines, habits and rituals can sometimes allow you to focus on the routine rather than any nerves – this is why people bounce the ball on the floor or racket several times – the routine is easy to perform, and you can clear your mind and loosen your body while it leads you naturally into your serve or return of serve.

    Good days/bad days – everyone has them – and if you don’t train a lot you will have a wider variation between your best day and worst day – you need to accept this.

    Worry less about winning the particular match you are about to play, and more about your standard of play. You are trying to lift your standard over the next few years, this is more important than whether you win a certain match today. So if you are 9 all in the last game – you have played to a certain standard in that match, and the last 2 points won’t really change the standard you have played at – so just play them as well as you can but don’t stress about them.

    Treat all matches as equally important – every win counts, but not too much by itself. In 5 years from now, you won’t remember all the matches you won or lost, but you will be a lot better than you are now, which is the main thing.

    If you are tightening up with nerves, remember that you know that you have to be loose and relaxed to play good Table Tennis – so if you are tight you are not going to play well and will probably lose anyway – so if you are going to lose – why not relax and stop worrying about it, and maybe you will play a bit better.

    Also, when you feel you are tightening up, try to make your movements larger and wrist snap a bit more than usual – as you tighten you tend to move less and jerkily, so try to move a bit more and keep it smooth. Keep the wrist as loose and relaxed as possible. Your wrist is possibly the most important part of your body when playing table tennis, so keep it nice and relaxed at all times.

  • Finally, everyone gets nervous – a little bit of excitement is normal for everybody and makes you play better, and stay more alert. Don’t expect to get rid of every bit of nerves – it will never happen. You actually need some nerves to keep alert, focused and concentrated. Remember, when there is no pressure at all, it is very easy to get lazy and make mistakes – so a little bit of nerves will keep you concentrating hard and stop you from getting slack.
  • Conclusion

    Having said all that, of course you won’t remember all of it when it comes time to play a match. But if you can remember just one or two things to try when you start to get nervous, at least you know you are doing something positive about it, rather than just suffering from the problem. And if what you try doesn’t work, give something else a go! To paraphrase a line from Brad Gilbert’s “Winning Ugly”, which is an excellent book for any table tennis player to read – it’s better to have a bad plan to combat your nerves than no plan, since at least a bad plan can be improved upon and made into a better plan – and better plans win matches. So pick a couple of points to try next time, and start improving your own plan ASAP.

    © 2005-2020 Greg Letts

    You may also read Greg’s blog and purchase Australian TT videos from Greg’s own website

    3 Strategies to Avoid Choking Under Pressure

    Choking under pressure—it happens to the best of us. We tank an interview and don’t get the job. We freeze while giving an important presentation. Or blank during a critical exam. And choking at a crucial moment of the game? That’s an athlete’s worst nightmare.

    To be clear, choking has nothing to do with having an off-day, performance-wise. When you choke, you perform much worse than your skill level indicates. Or, worse than you have in the past because you now find the situation stressful, cognitive scientist Sian Beilock tells New Scientist.

    Beilock is the president of Barnard College and author of two books — Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To; and How the Body Knows Its Mind: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel.

    You’re too “in your head”

    The prefrontal cortex is the epicenter of our cognitive horsepower, Beilock explains. Typically, we’re not paying attention to all of the little steps that make up everyday tasks.

    “But in times of intense stress, like a playoff game, major presentation, or a job interview, your prefrontal cortex can go into overdrive,” Beilock writes in Harvard Business Review.

    “When the pressure is on, we often start focusing on the step-by-step details of our performance to try and ensure an optimal outcome and, as a result, we disrupt what would have otherwise been fluid and natural.”

    This pressure leads to panic. We start overthinking, and suddenly, we face “paralysis by analysis.” Fortunately, Beilock has come up with several science-backed strategies to help us avoid choking under pressure. Here are three of them.

    Distract yourself

    First, accept that no amount of distraction will help if you haven’t adequately prepped for whatever high-stress situation in which you’ll soon find yourself. This trick assumes you have amply rehearsed, practiced, studied, etc., and in optimal conditions, would perform like a rock star.

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    Five minutes before the Big Event, resist the urge to review every detail of what you’re about to do, Beilock advises. Instead, take a few moments to focus on something else. Play a game on your phone. Scroll through Instagram. Plan your menu for dinner that night. It doesn’t matter how you distract yourself. The point is to refocus your cognitive horsepower away from the thing you’re about to do.

    By occupying your prefrontal cortex beforehand with unrelated activities, Beilock explains, you’re less likely to overthink in the moment and more likely to communicate or perform effectively.

    Jot down worries

    Researchers have found that writing down your concerns before a stressful event helps to download them from your mind—making them less likely to pop up in the moment, Beilock explains in her Ted Talk on choking under pressure.

    Dr. Srini Pillay of Harvard Medical School has come to the same conclusion. Expressive writing—where you write about your deepest thoughts and feelings—helps anxious people perform better on tests. “We’re not sure exactly why this is, but one leading theory is that writing about test anxiety ‘offloads’ worrisome thoughts, thereby freeing up mental resources to concentrate on the test,” Pillay explains.

    Practice, practice, practice

    As we hinted above, preparation is essential to nailing it—and to avoid choking under pressure. Say you have a job interview for a position you really want. Or need to give a speech in front of your entire company. Obviously, winging it isn’t an option.

    So learn your resume backward and forwards. Recruit a friend to conduct a mock interview with you. Practice giving your speech to colleagues or friends. For interviews or public speaking, it helps to record yourself in the process so you can suss out any verbal or physical tics that might distract your audience.

    If you’re studying for an important test, try to replicate the testing environment you’ll encounter on the actual day. Close the book, practice retrieving the answer from memory under timed situations, Beilock advises. The goal: make whatever the task is feel as fluid and natural as possible—like you’re on autopilot.

    To quote former pro basketball player Tim Duncan, “When you have to stop and think, that’s when you mess up.”

    But what if you still choke?

    “It’s not the end of the world,” Beilock reminds us. “You might be disappointed and even embarrassed, but like most things in life, it’s a learning experience. Take the opportunity to learn how to better handle the stress next time.”

    Did you enjoy this post with tips to avoid choking under pressure? It originally appeared on the Blacklight, our weekly newsletter for professionals. At the Blacklight, we aim to illuminate with every dispatch that lands in your inbox. If you’re thirsty for guidance to help you slay it at work or as a student and move your goalposts closer, sign up today!

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