This year has been marked by one of the most important sport events for athletes. Both the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio just finished, and also the Climbing World Championships in Paris are just over. There is a lot of (media) attention on and expectations in these events and therefore also a lot of pressure - the importance of performing well increases compared to other, minor competitions. If you officially don't "go for gold" in the Olympics you might not even be sent to the Games in first place - no matter what your realistic expectations may be. The discrepancy of external expectations and your individual capability can be very pressuring as well. But well, it's just understandable that this event remarks a highlight of this year or maybe even your career. You've prepared for ages, have been looking forward to this event. So how do you deal with the most important events of this year? Are you a choker or a clutcher?
Choking means that your performance decreases under pressure. We know from academic or cognition-based tasks that in such situations our working memory processes are disrupted. By contrast, clutching means your focus and determination grows under pressure. Take Tiger Woods for example, who is known as the master of clutching! Studies confirmed that there are athletes who's performance becomes even better under pressure. So the crucial question here is: Is it their personality or are there situational influence factors why athletes deal differently with pressure situations?
First of all, we need to isolate our movements to better understand the process of choking or clutching. Think of each movement as a either explicitly or implicitly executed tasks. Explicitly executed tasks are conscious and we can verbalize it. Imagine when we try out a movement for the first time, e.g. an instructor teaching you how to do a dynamic move for the very first time ever: The movement is initiated by your feet, knees and pelvis, making your motion smooth like a snake. The impulse you get you use to jump in the dead point of the movement, targeting the hold you aim for. On the other hand, if we learn or do tasks implicitly, we do them unconsciously and automatically. One good example for implicit movements everyone of us is able to do is walking. It's the most natural movement in the entire world we cannot even remember when and how we exactly learnt it. Generally, the more we train and repeat a movement the more implicitly we can implement it (also dynamic moves - to learn the right technique is just hard at the beginning).
We know that when we rely on our explicit knowledge of doing a movement we become more likely to choke under pressure.
Let's do an easy test. Think of a movement you normally do automatically and inherently, like e.g. walking. Can you explain as detailed as possible how to walk? Here's a try: You lift your left foot, bend your knee, stretch your leg to the front, drop it and shift your weight forwards over your left foot. Next you lift your right foot off the ground, bend your knee, move it to the front, stretch your leg and drop it a bit further. And so on. Try now to walk to this explanation. You'll realize that walking all of a sudden feels weird and "conscious" because we normally do it automatically. Now just imagine being in a pressuring situation and you start focussing on small, normally automated movements. Well, the pressure's on and I bet you'll feel uncomfortable.
But let's come back to our implicit movements. When we're moving automatically, we move fluently and efficiently, and moreover we can predict and control these movements. This perceived control deriving from accurate predictions of what happens next is an important factor for dealing well with pressure. Why is that so? If we are pressured, our anxiety level raises. We want to do a perfect performance which, in turn, increases our attention to skill processes and how to control our skills step-by-step (remember the example given before "walking consciously/ step-by-step"). However, if we are implicitly aware of our skills and feel sure about our ability to control them, we focus less on the step-by-step moves and are therefore more likely to succeed in pressuring situations.
But how do we gain perceived control and learn to do moves implicitly? First of all - and most important - we have to train train train. The more expertise we have, the better, the more controlled, the more fluently we perform certain movements. In further consequence, becoming an expert in your sport (which everyone at a high level undoubtedly is!) leads to more sport-confidence and in turn to more self-confidence. The key is to be able to have a good self-efficacy which means to realistically be able to judge your own abilities, performance and expectations for an upcoming event. And I'm talking here of being able to predict very detailed of what is possible.
You wouldn't believe it, but being able to rely on our implicit knowledge of movements is crucial for both experts and beginners. So also beginners perform better if they can rely on what they've already internalized. It is the best predictor whether we will perform well under pressure or not. Obviously, the better we become the more sport-confidence and self-confidence we gain. Well, and this, in turn, leads to more perceived control and better implicit knowledge.
How else can we train our implicit knowledge, perceived control and confidence?
First of all, become more self-confident in your own strength and abilities! Well and to do so, find out what your strengths are. What are you good at?
At the same time, get to know yourself better and learn to realistically estimate your performance! What can you expect of yourself? What is your potential? And what of these factors can you control? A possibility of training your self-estimation is using video tapes during trainings and competitions. Write down your expectations and compare your notes afterwards - what did you predict wrong and why? What can you improve?
The last key factor - how to handle pressure better - is to train under competition conditions. The more you get used to performing under pressure (even if it's just in a training), the better you can recall your performance in an actual competition - may it be a Austria Cup, a World Cup, the World Championships or the Olympics! Your sport-confidence and self-confidence increases significantly and you may better deal with all this pressure on.
Good luck! If you have any questions or want to find out more, just contact me!
For more information, also read Otten, M. (2009). Choking vs. Clutch Performance: A Study of Sport Performance Under Pressure. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 31, 583-601.