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The secret to avoid choking under pressure? Self-talk.

This is an excerpt from Sport Psychology Essentials by Dave J Collins & Andrew Cruickshank.

By John Toner, PhD

My own (the author’s) experience working with athletes has shown how self-talk can prove particularly effective in helping them to exert attentional control and to combat the potentially deleterious consequences of performance pressure. In one case, I worked closely with a highly skilled amateur golfer by helping him to use self-talk in order to redirect his focus of attention when he found himself subject to distractions during performance. The principal goal of the intervention was to help the athlete combat a series of choking episodes he had experienced in high-profile amateur events. More specifically, the performer found that having played his way into contention, he had a tendency to catastrophize and fixate on the consequences of a poor performance (e.g., the negative comments he might receive from teammates or friends and the likelihood of him being dropped from the national panel). Negative appraisals were accompanied by an increase in physiological arousal and occasionally by a sense of panic. A consequence of this tendency was that he often sought to remove himself from the situation by rushing shots and failing to complete some important elements of his preshot routine. In the postperformance phase of the routine, he would continue to ruminate on the poor performance as he started to prepare for an upcoming shot. We sought to prevent these external distractions and redirect his focus of attention by using various forms of instructional and motivational self-talk. For example, instructional self-talk included the use of the covert phrase “take dead aim” to encourage the athlete to adopt a visual attentional focus on the target immediately prior to task execution. He was also encouraged to utter various motivational self-talk cues (e.g., “I can finish strongly in this round”) when he recognized that he was beginning to experience negative thoughts. Another strategy involved reminding himself of the need to slow down (e.g., his walking pace, breathing rate) and to focus on completing each step of his preperformance behavioral routine by repeating the word process prior to task execution. The final strategy involved encouraging the golfer to use the postperformance routine to converse with his caddie or playing partner, thus discouraging excessive rumination on poor task execution. Together, these approaches improved the athlete’s ability to maintain concentration in high-pressure conditions and reduced his tendency to experience performance breakdown in clutch situations.

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