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Choking – underperforming under stress.

Many athletes, entertainers and others, who must execute their skill flawlessly, argue that they have a positive image of what they’re trying to accomplish. And… they probably do! But when it’s time for them to act in public, they often fall short of their best. Having positive thoughts and a good mental picture of a great game or performance can’t be underestimated, but a proper mental image alone won’t guarantee success. What causes talented people to make mistakes that they often wouldn’t make when they’re alone? The phenomenon is known as choking, is under performing and it can ruin their day.

Choking occurs when worry, pressure, anxiousness or over thinking overcome the person. This phenomenon is also referred to as losing it, blowing up or falling apart. It happens to performers playing taps or singing the National Anthem at public events. Extended periods of underperformance are called slumps. Golfers, tennis players, hitters, pitchers, basketball players, salesmen and others can experience these slumps.

What causes this underperformance? Just as a computer has random access memory, so do humans! The working or extremely short term memory portion of our memory is called the phonological loop. Once one knows how to swing a tennis racket or a golf club for example, these actions should be performed with our mind’s auto pilot using the basal ganglia and motor cortex of the brain – not its short term working memory – or phonological loop. This working memory can only hold 7 to 9 things. When we start trying to control the motor skills of the golf swing for example, we’re bringing the different components of the swing out of the basal ganglia and motor cortex, up into the working memory. This condition is then exacerbated by trying even harder to control the motors skills. In fact the harder one tries, the worse the performance. This over loads the phonological loop or short term memory.

In the band room the trumpet player plays taps without mistakes. But at a public ceremony, he wants to make sure he doesn’t mess up, so instead of playing on his mind’s auto pilot, he over thinks. This over thinking is causing a severe drain on his working memory! A soloist singing the national anthem, an actor delivering his or her lines, have all practiced over and over and over again and performed flawlessly, yet when it really counts, the pressure of the event can cause them to choke and perform far beneath their talent and abilities. When I work with golfers for example, I instruct them to go to the tee, look where they want to put the ball, notice I didn’t say hit, and without a practice swing, just put it there. This frees up their phonological loop to concentrate on where they want the ball to go, instead of trying to remember all of the components of the golf swing. Nike once had a slogan – just do it! Actually that is the best way!

The fear of losing it, blowing it, of others seeing us mess up will cause many to attempt to over control. These thoughts, worries, doubts and fears reside in the subconscious mind – in the cognitive maps of the alpha and theta states. Therefore, it’s an exercise in futility to attempt to over control with our conscious mind, by only positive thinking or imagining. The subconscious must be included! Therapists that utilize talk therapy only, can’t enable their patients or clients to fix their problem, as they are continually revisiting the incident or incidents, thereby reinforcing the fear/problem.  Remember the “don’t think of an elephant for ten seconds?” It was impossible – wasn’t it? Talk therapy deals only in the beta or the fully conscious and engaged mind. We can’t make permanent changes there. Only in the subconscious can we make permanent behavioral change.

In hypnotherapy, we use conversation to indentify the areas of doubt and fear and then we use the therapy of hypnosis to move past these fears and doubts by accessing the subconscious mind. And, the only way the subconscious mind can be accessed deliberately, is with hypnosis. Hypnosis is the bridge to the subconscious mind.

Whether it might be in sports, entertainment, business, public speaking or something completely different, if you feel that “choking” could be holding you back, please call Bob Crow for a complimentary consultation.

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