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Choking in Tennis: Causes and Interventions

Choking in Tennis: Causes and Interventions


David A. Feigley, Ph.D.

Youth Sport Research Council

Rutgers University


What is choking? It is not simply losing a winnable game. A tennis player with a commanding lead in the final set falters and allows an inferior player to “steal” the match. This reflects what is commonly referred to as a “choke.” It is performing significantly worse than expected given one’s skill level despite one’s desire for superior performance in the presence of substantial incentives. It is more than impaired performance; it is the process that leads to the impaired performance; e.g., distraction via thinking of the consequences. Choking is believed to be caused by two totally different, but not mutually exclusive mechanisms – a) distractions which use up a limited amount of cognitive resources or b) unnecessary self-focused analysis of an already well learned skill.


Who is most susceptible to choking? Individuals who consciously try to control well-learned skills under pressure (known as “reinvesters”) are more likely to choke than those low in the tendency to reinvest who are more likely to excel under pressure. Athletes simultaneously high in trait anxiety and low in self-confidence typically struggled when performing in pressure situation because their working memory is compromised by high levels of acute and chronic psychological stress. High levels of state anxiety appear to overwhelm short term working memory capacity.


Skill level produces opposite effects at low and high levels. Novices appear more likely to choke when distracted by additional tasks such as thinking about the important consequences of the “big”match. They need more of their limited short-term memory capacity to process both tasks (playing match and thinking of the consequences). They have not yet automated the skills. Choking occurs because the second task occupies crucial memory capacity necessary to make executive decisions. On the other hand, Self-focus with novices is consistent with their conscious effort to learn and execute the task and, thus, typically results in little or no performance decrement. Skilled athletes, on the other hand, no longer need substantial short-term memory capacity so they appear relatively immune to additional distracting tasks but are prone to disruption if they revert to self-focusing strategies on well learned skills.


Effective interventions to alleviate choking:

Interventions are of two types: First, coaches and players can adopt strategies during the initial learning and practice sessions which reduce the likelihood of choking occurring later during pressure situations. Second, strategies can be implemented at the point of pressure where choking is likely to occur. At this phase of our understanding of the phenomenon of choking, some interventions have empirical support from research studies and some have developed as a result of applied coaching techniques where coaches and athletes have had success overcoming previous choking experiences.


Strategies for the Learning/Practice Phase:

  1. Skills learned implicitly appear to be resistant to choking. Implicit learning refers to learning without intention often resulting in game specific knowledge that is difficult to verbalize. Coaches refer to it as learning “by feel.” Because the skill has been learned without explicit steps or specific rules, there is no ability of the athlete to self-focus when confronted with a pressure situation. Therefore, such a process cannot contribute to choking. Without explicit knowledge, they cannot reinvest. However, implicit learning has not been enthusiastically adopted by coaches and athletes because implicit learning a) typically takes place more slowly than explicit learning and b) fails to provide coaches with strategies to teach the skill in the first place.

  1. Practice performing in stressful situations with real negative consequences for failure. Research from a variety of sports have found that practicing under pressure simulations, even pressure that is mild compared to the actual event, helps significantly to inoculate athletes from choking in actual pressures situations. Perform before an evaluative audience. Look for and use naturally occurring pressure situations in practice. “I have to make 5 first serves in a row or else I have ½ hour more of conditioning drills.” The more you are successful in actual pressure situations, the more you will have faith in your ability to perform under pressure. It is one thing to believe that you can perform well under pressure because others, such as your coach and your teammates, tell you “You can do it!” It is quite a different matter to have absolute faith in your ability to perform under pressure because you can say to yourself after having successfully performed under pressure in practice that “I did it!”

  1. The use of visual imagery to place the athlete in pressure packed situations that are normally unattainable except in an actual championship match has long been recommended by experienced, elite coaches. Competing in the Olympics – even for those talented enough to obtain such success – is still a “once in a lifetime” occurrence for most. To the extent that imagery can anticipate and realistically produce such pressure-packed situation, imagery can be an antidote to choking in such rarely experienced, but life changing, competitive situations.

  1. Practice with actual distracting events present. Coaches have long attempted to intervene to prevent choking by practicing under distracting conditions. Play pre-recorded loud crowd noises in spectator sports over a loud speaker when performing a well-learned skill. Make the distracting event as specific as possible to events that are likely to happen in actual competition. You get better at what you practice. Therefore, the more specifically you can anticipate game situations, the more likely that your athletes will thrive rather than falter when they encounter such situations.

  1. Practice the act of focusing on what to do rather than what not to do. Say to yourself “Follow through” rather than “Don’t hesitate.” “Go for it” rather than “Don’t miss.” Such strategies develop the habit of focusing on what to do rather than on what not to do. Focusing on what to do is a major component of the skill of “staying in the moment.”

  1. Re-interpret prior failures as stepping stones to success. John Wooden, the world famous basketball coach at UCLA, referred to mistakes as the building blocks for success. Extend that approach to crucial mistakes in pressure situations. Instead of labeling one’s self as a choker, try to determine what you can learn from a failure. One characteristic of mental toughness is to recover from a mistake. It appears harder to perform well after an early double fault than to continue to perform well when you are already in a flow state.

  1. Analogy learning has also resulted in resistance to choking under pressure. Analogy learning uses biomechanical metaphors to teach complex actions. For example, when teaching a novice to hit a backhand, the player might be told to swing “as if brushing dust off a long, low bench.” Analogy learning differs from implicit learning because in analogy learning the athlete intends to learn the skill while in implicit learning there is no such intent. Both Implicit and Analogy learning are likely to be questioned by coaches and athletes because they typically prevent athletes from self-correcting technical errors because of the lack of explicit guidelines for performing the skill and would appear to have little value to athletes who have already mastered the skill via explicit learning.

  1. Develop ritualistic pre-performance routines. Such rituals have provided some relief from choking in athletes identified as prone to choking. Such rituals appear to protect the performer from distractions rather than from self-focus. For example, a player on her serve may step to the line, bounce the ball three times, toss and serve in the same rhythmic pattern as used for serving in practice, in normal competitive situations and for the critical serve in the championship match.

  1. Finally, a variety of psychological training techniques have received empirical validation of their positive impact on sport performance (e.g., imagery, overlearning, conditioning, efficient techniques – to mention only a few). Whether these techniques are equally effective with individuals who are prone to choking is yet to be empirically determined. However, such peak performance training strategies are a logical approach to preventing choking.

Strategies for the Crucial Moment Phase:

  1. Don’t slow down. Proceed quickly without rushing just as you would in a less pressured situation. Athletes who choke typically take extra time in preparing for the “big movement” presumably to overthink or overanalyze what should be an automatic, well-rehearsed skill. Step up and “just do it”

  1. Focus on the outcome, not the “how to…”. See the ball hitting just inside the baseline. See the serve acing your opponent as it bounces wide after hitting just inside the service box. Avoid thinking differently about executing the skills than you normally would in a less pressured situation. Focus on what you want done rather than how to do it.

  1. Used generalized, global key words that emphasize the entire continuity of the skill. Say “smooth” during a forehand stroke. Think “power” during a backhand. Say “strong” during the serve. Such words or thoughts help keep you focused on the end result rather than the step-by-step processes” of your performance. The use of “process cues” has been found to reduce choking. Focusing on cues that promoted a generalized “feel” for the skills appears to result in better performance under pressure than a focus on specific technical steps of executing the skill. The enhanced performance may result because the process cues prevent self-focus.

  1. Stay in the moment. Past and future performances are irrelevant. They are distracting events. Think of what you want done – not how you’re going to do it – and then do it!

  1. Avoid saying “Don’t think about errors.” Say “Serve strongly” rather than “don’t hit long.” Thinking about missing directs one’s thoughts to missing.

  1. Use distractions with highly learned skills. Paradoxically, distractions can actually help veterans who have mastered executing skills automatically even though such distractions typically lower the performances of novices. Distractions which are consistent with the skill yet not overly involved with analysis of the skill components. Focusing on the baseline rather than the sequence of movements involved with a backhand can actually help a player hit winners in a pressure situation.