An athlete often faces competition in the same way that another kind of performer does: He or she gets butterflies before going on the field or on the court.
Anxiety can help focus and sharpen performance. For some athletes, however, the pressure of performing well takes its toll in the form of performance anxiety, which causes them to do less than their best. It's like stage fright that can overcome a musician or actor. Or the weak knees you feel when you are scheduled to give an important talk at work.
The symptoms of performance anxiety—or "choking"—are physical. Your chest feels tight, and you may have trouble breathing. You may feel tense, and your heart rate and breathing speed up. Some athletes get dizzy or feel nauseous. They may have blurred vision, a dry mouth or clammy skin.
Performance anxiety can stem from a number of factors. An athlete may not have experience dealing with anxiety in competition. He or she may fear failure, lack confidence in his or her abilities or have poor concentration skills.
If you tend to choke under pressure, you can take steps to avoid it. The first rule is to remember that it's only a game, or a speech or a business meeting. No matter the outcome, it's not a life-threatening situation. With the proper perspective, it's hard to choke, and a lot easier to have fun.
The will to win isn't as important as the will to practice to win. This means you need to get yourself in peak condition—perfect your skills and techniques so you have confidence in them and they become second nature. Practice in conditions that, as near as possible, simulate actual game or event conditions. Make practice more like competition, and treat competition more like practice. Talk to your coach or teammates about your anxiety, they may have strategies that have helped them cope with performance anxiety.
Focus on the task at hand, not its consequences. You should be thinking, "I'm going to make this shot now," not "What if I miss it?" That sets up an expectation to do just that.
Be in the here and now, not thinking but doing. As legendary baseball manager Branch Rickey once said, "A full mind is an empty bat."
Mentally play back a tape in your head of succeeding in whatever situation you're in, then do it.
There's a big difference between saying to yourself, "Don't miss this crucial free throw" and "I know I can do it." Don't put any added, self-imposed pressure on yourself.
Whenever you can, take a deep breath. Try to relax your muscles. It's difficult to choke and be relaxed at the same time.
Put it together
Pull all these strategies together. For example, a typical pre-serve ritual for a tennis player might involve the following: Look at the spot where you want the serve to go and visualize the flight of the ball there; bounce the ball three to five times; look again; take a deep breath to calm yourself and execute the serve.