How to avoid “choking”
It is 10-10 in the final set, of the final match, of the biggest tournament of the year. Player 1 steps up to the table, throws the ball up to serve and it ends up in the net. Player 2 serves for the match and Player 1 top spins off the end of the table. We’ve all been there; the pressure was too high and resulted in a deterioration of the skills that you have performed well so many times before. This is called “choking under pressure”.
So what is happening when a payer “chokes”?
It is when a player experiencing high stress switches from auto-pilot to being acutely aware of what it is that they are doing. This focus on detail results in a breakdown of the skills that have come to be automatic with many hours of practice. For example, imagine performing your favourite serve. It is smooth and you can almost do it with your eyes closed. Now imagine thinking through that movement step by step as it is happening. The serve then becomes broken down in to tiny steps making it disjointed and highly prone to error. This is what happens under those high pressure situations. Being able to perform under these high pressure situations is essential for any player who wants to succeed in table tennis. Learning to perform well under pressure is something that you can work and get better at no matter what your current level is. Here are some tips to help you when it matters most:
1) Practice under pressure
Practicing under high pressure conditions will give you the experience you need to handle the pressure later on. So anyway that you can increase the pressure in practice will minimise your chances of choking in a match. You could play for rewards of forfeits. Or play in a situation where a partner is relying on you. Anyway that increases the pressure will be of benefit when it comes to the real thing.
2) Imagine you already have the prize
In a study from 2018 researchers noticed a peculiar effect in mind-set when participants imagined that they already had the prize and they were performing not to lose it. The results showed a dramatic reduction in choking. So, why not imagine that you have already won the points and are playing to keep them.
3) Distract yourself
To avoid thinking too hard about what you are doing when not develop a small routine that you can focus on instead. For example, bouncing the ball or twiddling your bat. You could even go as far as singing a song (preferably in your head).
So go away and practice with these 3 tips in mind to ensure that you are mentally tough enough when you need to be.
Simon Dunne, Vikram S Chib, Joseph Berleant, John P O’Doherty; Reappraisal of incentives ameliorates choking under pressure and is correlated with changes in the neural representations of incentives, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 14, Issue 1, 4 January 2019, Pages 13–22, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsy108