Choking – the psychological kind, not the physical kind – is a serious issue for athletes, especially in sports like fencing where razor-sharp focus is a must. When an athlete “chokes,” they essentially freeze up and find it intensely difficult to make decisions, especially the kind of split-second decisions needed to respond to an opponent. This psychological phenomena is closely related to stage fright and stems from the same fight-or-flight response gone haywire. So how can you handle it?

Understand How Choking Presents

Choking most frequently presents as intense nervousness, an inability to make decisions, confusion, feeling “overwhelmed,” or even feeling nauseas and dizzy. All of these stem from the neurological response spurred on by racing levels of adrenaline.

But for some athletes, it presents as overconfidence instead. Research shows that such a response is likely a coping skill; rather than become nervous, the athlete begins to focus too heavily on the goal and not enough on his actual skill, e.g. “being too cocky.”

Both responses are significantly dangerous for athletes because they cause a loss of focus. Once athletes learn to recognize them appropriately, they can use basic mindfulness and relaxation techniques to calm them down.

Breathing During Play

“Focus on your breathing.” It’s a short phrase that’s so important, you’ll find it in the meditation practices for several cultures, religions, and variants of psychology. Focusing on the in breath or counting the breath (while breathing slowly) can have a real physical effect on adrenaline, reducing anxiety, restlessness, and lack of focus.

When an athlete recognizes their focus slipping during play, sometimes just focusing on the breath for a few breaths is enough to bring their focus and center back.

Breathing exercises (like breathing in for 4, releasing for 4) before a game may also help to shake the nervousness that makes choking more likely during play.

Mindfulness During Play

One of the biggest contributing factors to athletes who choke is a shift in consciousness away from what’s happening – right now – to what’s happening in the future (or even the past). Thoughts like “I’ve never won, I’m going to lose now, too,” or “I’m doing really well, I have him for sure,” or even “Look at what the other guy is doing. What a terrible opponent!,” are a surefire sign that mindfulness is slipping.

To restore mindfulness, the athlete should attempt to shift his focus back to the now gently. He can do this by acknowledging the thoughts and then refocusing on his own game. Each time the mind slips, he should bring his focus back to how he is playing (rather than how his opponent is playing).

If extreme choking occurs, sometimes focusing on what they can hear, smell, see, and feel can ground the mind back into mindfulness.

The best way to deal with athletes choking is through rigorous practice that mimics the tournament environment. By gently raising stress in a controlled environment, you provide a safe area for the athlete to practice mindfulness and self-regulation without the risk of a loss. Schedule your next practice with Silversword Fencing Academy to learn more about techniques like these.