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To Choke or Not to Choke that is the question?

Lisa Tamati

Posted on December 12 2017

To Choke or Not to Choke that is the question?

How not to choke under pressure.

It’s so easy to do when you are under pressure and most of us can recall a time when it has happened to us but choking or freezing under pressure can be very detrimental to your safety, your career or sporting ambitions not to mention your self confidence so it is worth considering ways to mitigate it or stopping it all together.  Here I wanted to to take an in-depth look at whats going on and how we can help ourselves get back under control. 
In this world of high pressure, high expectation and fierce competition and the need for high performance we need to master our own physiology and psychology so we don’t become victims of our own reactions. 
Choking is when you stop functioning at your usual capacity or ability. It’s when you underperform compared to what you are really capable of. 
The greater the perceived pressure and the perceived consequences, the more likely this is to happen. 
Many of our greatest successes and performances happen when there is no pressure and often no one to see it so how do we replicate that when under the gun.

Pressure in and of itself can help us lift our game and raise our performance to new levels so how do we tap into that state of mind of being able to perform better under scrutiny and pressure than we usually do in our day to day lives, using the energy and heightened state of alertness to our advantage rather than choking up.

In my own sporting career I have had times of extreme pressure, fear, danger, pain, high expectations of me  and so on and during some of these occasions I have performed beyond my wildest imagination, I like to think of it as tapping into my “warrior” mentality or state. When I put a start number for a race on I physically, emotionally and mentally change into something I am not in my everyday life necessarily, a bit like Superman or wonder woman
 in the movies who changes his clothes and becomes super empowered . The analogy works in a scaled down version in reality.

There have however also been times when I have choked “clinging to the side of a proverbial cliff paralysed by fear  unable to move forward or backwards. 
What were the things I did or the preparations I made in the times I didn’t choke but soared to new heights and how do  we tap into that state at will?

The more consequences there are or the more important the outcome, the more pressure there is and pressure produces a number of primal physiological responses.

Our brains store memories of fearful or traumatic experiences. This leads us often to reacting as if “ physically and immediately threatened” when in reality we aren’t.  Picture for example public speaking or going for a job interview that you really want or standing at the start line of a marathon or a big important rugby game. 
These reactions to a “threat” are programmed in our bodies since caveman days. The “Fight or flight” syndrome for example, this is a reaction designed to prepare us to move or react quickly and our emotions and physical body is turned onto  high alert status. Our heart rate goes up, adrenaline is released into our blood stream, our muscles tighten in readiness and we often experience butterflies in our stomachs. We may start sweating as blood starts pumping around the body vigorously. Decision making can become more difficult, parts of our brain shut down and your attention can start to fixate so we can misrepresent what is happening, making it more frightening or larger than it necessarily is. We lose our ability to adapt and adjust easily and our ability to hold an overview of the situation as our focus closes in. 

Often these reactions are not useful or even appropriate to the situation and are often exaggerated due to past memories of events and experiences that may have happened way back in our childhood years and have no real relevance to who you are today but have the same debilitating effect. 
An example may be a child who is told often that are they dumb just because they struggled with the standard school system but who believes this old label as if it were relevant to them today when in fact they may have had say a specific learning disabilitiy or dyslexia or an unkind teacher who just liked to pick on them. That  label of being dumb or useless at sport or hopeless at public speaking for another example though can be debilitating years later and cause people to feel inadequate or not perform to their real potential because of a limiting belief system and to react and choke up or even freeze when faced with a similar situation in the present day.

Just understanding the body’s physiological reactions and the reason for the underlying emotional responses can help us take back control and stop this pattern of behaviour in it’s tracks. In fact we can use this heightened state to perform better than usual rather than letting it choke us up.

Preparing your mind before a stressful event also helps in using these physiological responses. Visualisation for example, walking through in your minds eye again and again the scenario, event or competition you will be faced with, picturing yourself in control, strong, successful. Getting into the details in your fantasy world of this event, smelling, seeing, feeling, what it will be like and what will happen sets the brain into a state where “it’s already achieved it”  and that  can have real world wins and real world positive successes. 
An example of this mechanism happened to me during a 222km himalaya race where I ripped the ligaments off my ankle 10 weeks out from the event. I  was unable to run for 8 weeks leaving me only two weeks to gain a little fitness back and  leaving me apparently physically undertrained but because I had spent time visualising over and over the successful completing of the race and had used the time to invest more in the psychological preparation and alternative methods of training other than running I was successful and I believe wholeheartedly that the visualisation process (achieving the objective in your head) really makes it almost a fait accompli in the real world. 

Visualisation will also help you temper those nasty physiological symptoms you get on D day. 

Deep breathing exercises and mediating, which may sound spiritual in nature but  is in fact a very practical physically explainable tool can help stop you choking up under pressure. 
Breathing deeply into the stomach using the diaphragm has many advantages. 
When we get nervous we start shallow breathing unconsciously, using only the upper 1/3 of our chest and this pattern of breathing makes us hold tension in our gut and signifies to our body’s danger. So when we consciously try and relax our breathing. Breathing deeply using our diaphragm to stuck air into the bottom of our lungs, it signifies to the primitive part of our brains that you are in safety and the body starts to shut off the emergency responses likes releasing stress hormones and helps you take back control.  

These small daily rituals can help you in stressful physical, emotional or intellectual situations and help you keep a check on your emotions and physical reactions. Regular practice using the three tools of visualisation, deep breathing and meditation are a very  beneficial use of your precious time than you previous perhaps thought possible. 

But what about Fear?
How do we stop feeling fear or limit its debilitating effects? We can probably never turn off fear altogether and neither should we, it is there for a reason but we can learn to function with it.

When you start fixating on  the fear, the threat, the consequences of getting or doing it wrong, you are exasperating the situation. Fear is a natural reaction to physical danger but we often feel fear in other situations too when we are in danger. If there is no imminent threat to your actual physical safety try not to let fear stop you doing something. “Just do it” the Nike slogan says and sometimes that is great advice. Just get on with it anyway before you can think about it too much..

The famous book title  “Feel the fear and do it anyway” gets straight to the point. If we let our fears stop us every time we face a challenge we won’t achieve much in life, we most certainly won’t reach our full potential. 

We must learn to accept a certain amount of fear but not focus on it and get on with the job at hand anyway. 

In my experiences, in fact before every single major race or event I have done, I feel terrified but I have to learnt through using the aforementioned tools and sometimes just by shear willpower to make myself do things anyway.  

Know too that often waiting is the hardest part. Once you are in the middle of the action so to speak often the fear disappears of its own accord as you focus on the task at hand. 

In one of my races at high altitude  the fear mongering from medical staff, experts on altitude etc and the other competitiors really started to wear me down, the dire consequences that could arise let alone the normal innate fear of the pain and suffering were you about to subject yourself to, became almost overwhelming so much so that I started contemplating pulling out before even starting. 

These negative things were all weakening my resolve and my energy reserves so it came to a point 24 hours out from the event when I made a conscious decision to block any negative people, information or thought processes that would be detrimental to my objective. 
I had my crew feed me constant positive information and support and I meditated and visualised success and fought every negative thought off and when I awoke to the day of the race and got slowly dress I figuratively donned my armour steeling my emotions and stopping deep thought processes totally. Just focussing on the immediate part of the task at hand. All that helped me control my physiology, my emotions, my focus and my energy reserves into succeeding and performing what would normally be considered  not doable. 

Commitment to the objective, race, vision, job or business is essential. Your total energy goes in one direction and you can literally then move mountains. 
If you are hesitant, fearful, doubting then therein often lies the actual danger or its exasperated. 
Take for example big wave surfers, when you decide to take that humongous wave that is coming at you like a building in motion, at  full speed, with only split seconds to decide on what you are going to do, you had better make sure your mind is made up fast if you are committing to it… to half pie commit is a recipe for disaster or in this case a first class wipeout whereas if you commit you have a chance, a much better chance of making the wave you might still wipe out but you might also succeed and you have more chance of pulling it off than if you hesitate.

Using analogies such as these to look at pressure situations you are facing and to see it  as a challenge rather than a threat can change your whole perspective on it and help you control your reactions and therefore your performance. Changing the framework of your perception into a positive rather than a fearful negative one will enable you to achieve more and deliver consistently under pressure. 

Summary of some of the tools to help you reach your potential under pressure.

1. Check the situation, is it a challenge or a threat. Make it a challenge an opportunity and enjoy the physiological responses than come with that perception. Ones that are more helpful than detrimental 

2. Am I in  physical danger? If not then its not necessary for me to react with a fight or flight syndrome reaction at all.  Putting things into perspective and not making mountains out of molehills helps.

3. Breath deeply to signal to your body you are in safety.

4. Build on your successes, go through past times when you have made it, succeeded, had that feeling of euphoria. Tap into those emotions and let it empower you in the present challenge.

5. Challenge your  body’s responses conciously. Is this response relevant to the situation or the leftover reaction from a distant memory that is no longer pertinent to who you are today. Should that be the measure of your ability for example to be good public speaker at age 40 just because  you froze on stage at a school speech competition at age 10. Not relevant, not pertinent and able to be overcome with conscious understanding of the underlying memory.

6. Meditation to control your focus and to calm the physiological stress responses and to quieten the mind.

7. Positive affirmations, positive friends, positive stimuli in any form is what you should seek out. Block any negative thought process and don’t concentrate or focus on the consequences of failure but rather visualise the joy 

If you like this article be sure to check out Lisa's Mindset Academy where she teaches everything you need to know about mental toughness, emotional resilience, leadership and much more. Lisa's Mindset Academy


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