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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Rauch, Ph. D.

Your Personal Choke Factor

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

Image found through google. Please let me know if you know who to credit

Do you play sports? Have you ever blown a lead? If so, then you know what it means to choke. Choking occurs when fear of making a mistake over rides the positive experiences of what you’re doing. In every day life this might even be called “anxiety.”

Choking occurs when the limbic part of an athlete’s brain “gets” triggered, forcing the athlete to react as if he or she “might not make it,” unless perfection occurs. The athletes’ imagination is activated by their own frightening imagination based on young unconscious experiences. When this occurs they are as triggered as if they are watching a scary movie.

So why does the person at a movie get frightened anyway? Intellectually, everyone knows they are “just watching a movie.” The reason for getting scared watching a movie and an athlete fearing anxious is the same.

Survival fear over rides all other feelings. And, the limbic system cannot distinguish between real or imagined situations such as a scary movie, competition, or being held at gunpoint.

The scary movie, fear of losing, and being held at gunpoint trigger the “startle response.” In the startle response, the individual is surprised and holds his or her breath. They open their eyes wide, and fixate on the survival threat. In competition and life, the ability to go from a narrow vision to a broad vision helps us take in much more information as well as feel relaxed.

When the body tightens from the startle response, the chest stops moving, we have a tendency to hold the breath. Energy is reserved for fight, flight or freeze. The energy does not flow well to the chest or abdomen the legs, arms, hands and feet are easily available.

In competition this looks like holding onto the club or racket too tightly. This kind of fearful reaction is not the least bit useful to play well.

The startle response in competition is in effect your personal choke factor. Recognizing your precursors to choking allows you to consciously support yourself with better actions than an automatic startle response.

For example a golfer who gets the yips may freeze his or her pelvis allowing arm and shoulder movements to outrace his or legs. This is a recipe for a poor swing.

But, knowing what part of your body freezes under pressure allows you to consciously teach that part of your body to move under pressure until the new actions become instinctual.


By paying attention to your 1) images, 2) thoughts, 3) emotions and 4) body sensations ICES, you can begin to know your pattern and move toward changing a predestined choke.

The first step to prevent yourself from choking is to recognize when you are in the startle response. Based on your cognitions (which consist of images and self talk), emotions and body sensations.
The second step is to know what part of your body routinely gets tight.
Th third step is to teach yourself to let go of this "protection" under pressure.

Example 1: A female golfer

Eileen, a golfer, stands over her upcoming tee shot and feels nervous nervous (feelings). As she imagines herself missing the drive it to the right, like she did the last time she played this hole.

Because Eileen recognizes her personal choke factor, she knows she is imagining a negative scenario and her nervousness is also a sign that she needs to do something to counter her unconscious tendency.

She knows her routine bad habit is to hold the club too tight when she is nervous and to tighten her pelvis, stopping her legs from moving first.

Because she knows her tight habits under pressure, she can focus her attention on loose hands and moving her legs first....on purpose. Over time teach she will teach herself to do these things instinctually.

Example 2: Bob a male tennis player

Bob is a tennis player who won the first set against someone Jim, ranked much higher than him. Bob starts to calculate his potential new ranking and gets lost in thoughts that are not about playing one point at a time. Bob needs to recognize these thoughts make him overly excited and keep him from focusing on getting returning every serve so he can break Jim's serve and win this set.

Example 3: Lee a male basketball player

Lee has one second on the clock to win the game for his team. Although he visualizes the ball going into the hoop, he is scared he is going to miss and his team will lose.

He knows he has to calm himself down and walks to the back of the key feeling his whole foot make contact with the floor to bring his emotions down. He can feel his emotions settle down so that when he shoots the foul shot he makes the shot feel like an every day foul practice shot.

Pain is an indicator

An athlete who notices pain or tight places in the body is looking at a neon sign that he or she has lost flow in that part of their body. Getting the flow back to that part of the body is a helpful tool for playing up to your potential, just as focusing on the task at hand in the crucial moment is a useful tool for blocking pain, too.

Knowing that you have to block awareness of pain is one thing. Developing skills to let go of "too tight places" in the body is another.

Learning to let go of "too tight places" in order to move out of your personal choke factor is a skill that is learned just like any other skill.

Examples of body sensations that come up when you are preparing to choke vary. Some people have reported feeling heavy legs or, immovable elbows or arms in hindsight after choking. A tight grip on a club or racket or not being quick on your feet are sure signs that you are too tense.

Sometimes pain is a cue, but that is not always helpful in fast moving sport because it is hidden by an athlete’s adrenaline. In slower moving events such as a foul shot, or a golf swing, old injury pains that come up can be cues for the athlete to step away and find a way back to their easy going self before they execute.

Let Go

Once you are aware of your personal choke factor, learning to let go of that tenseness is a useful tool for coming back to your routine level of play.

The unique approach I suggest is to become aware of when you are about to choke, and then consciously bring support yourself to let go of tightness and or focus on better habits than your tendency under pressure.

Examples of using your body to let go include, focusing attention on your breath to take your awareness out of negativity. Or bring your awareness to a tight body part such as your hand and gently move your hand and fingers, finding the weight of the bones in your fingers. Both of these are simple examples of using your mind and body to take yourself out of anxiety when competing in sports.

If you would like more information on the way I work with athletes, leave a comment below or please contact me at and we can discuss setting up an appointment or finding someone in your area who might be able to help you.

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