In fighting sports, there is a term known as ‘gym champ’. The gym champ is a fighter who can fight well in the gym, but when fighting in competition, their performance drops. The colloquial term for this behaviour gap is choking or choke. All sports have their version of choking: the double fault, the missed 1-foot putt, the trip on the final hurdle.
Knowledge of choking is not only relevant for high-performance athletes (Beilock, 2010). The weekend warrior and even the casual member can enhance their enjoyment and speed up their improvement by understanding the choking phenomena.
In this week’s blog, I unbundle some of the contributing factors to the choke and what the experienced athlete and weekend warrior can do to avoid the choke and ensure they can optimise their progress as athletes.
Mindful thinking makes sense during the learning process to avoid the choke
A key area of focus for cognitive psychology is the study of memory. When working with boxers, I like to discuss the difference between two types of memory; working and procedural. Working memory is similar to what many people think of when they think of short-term memory. Working memory is the small amount of information the brain can hold when completing a cognitive task.
When you are learning an activity, say a new combination or footwork, working memory is essential to recall the steps required to learn the technique actively. The conscious awareness of the activity is vital for one to learn a new behaviour. We keep the behavioural steps in working memory, repeating the moves in our head as we repeat the moves with our body.
Being mindful of the technique, and having an awareness of your working memory related to the task, is crucial for your brain to learn the activity. Avoiding distractions and focussing just on that movement is crucial to both learning the move correctly and moving on to the next stage, which is automating the movement.
Once learnt, working memory becomes a hindrance
Another critical form of memory is procedural memory, the long-term memory for performing tasks. One of the best ways to understand procedural memory is to think of the memory activated when riding a bike. The learning of bike riding is a procedure held in memory and activated when required.
Once you have learnt a task, activating working memory will hinder performance. If you had to think about balancing while thinking of peddling fast, as when you first learnt to ride, your riding performance would suffer. We want to rely on procedural memory.
The same is true with boxing. The key to progression is avoiding accessing working memory once we have mastered a task, and it is in procedural memory. Once mastered, if you think about what is involved in the movement, you will block your ability to perform the task.
Not only will you block the procedural memory’s capacity to automate the task, but going back to working memory takes a person back to what is known as a beginner’s mind. The person is taken back to what it was to be a beginner, and performance drops.
Keeping working memory occupied to avoid the choke
So, what can we do to stop the interference if we know that we don’t want working memory to interfere with procedural memory? We need to give working memory something to do other than think about the task. Focussing on something else, such as breathing, is a perfect way of entertaining working memory and stopping it from interfering with our procedural memory and, ultimately, our performance.
Aiming for flow
We are aiming for what Csikszentmihalyi (1990) would call a state of flow. Flow occurs when we are doing a difficult task and find ourselves immersed in the activity. In upcoming posts, I will discuss flow in greater detail but suffice to say that if we can perform in a state of flow, then we can perform to our highest ability, and it will seem effortless. Flow occurs when a boxer has no idea how they pulled off a combination, saw an opening or avoided a punch before it left the person’s shoulder. Flow is captured in movies like the Matrix, and flow is a goal when working actively with an athlete.
For the athlete understanding the ‘why’ they want to progress toward a state of flow is a given; they want to perform to the highest possible level. However, understanding the why is also essential for the casual gym goer at Spartans. We know that progression is key to longevity in the sport, and longevity is key to long-term gains; by being explicit about ‘why,’ we set up a fundamental condition of flow, namely activity that leads to desired outcomes.
Understanding why we are boxing, be it for fitness or fighting, and what continual improvement looks like is part of our ongoing performance development. With all the athletes and weekend warriors I work with, understanding and reminding about the why is key.
Reaching your optimal level of stress to avoid the choke
Stress is not necessarily a negative thing. People need a certain level of stress to perform, as noted by what is known as the Yerkes-Dodson curve.
When stress gets high, the positive becomes a negative, impacting our cognitive ability. Stress hampers the ability of the brain to communicate with the body. The result is a disconnection between our thoughts and actions. Hence, learning how to manage stress, a topic for a later blog, is crucial for athletes and weekend warriors alike.
Having a crowd there and replicating the scenario to avoid the choke
For athletes, one of the most stress-producing events is having an audience watching one’s event. Athletes are only human and naturally suspectable to stage fright and feelings of humiliation from performing at a level below standard.
The key to avoiding stage fright is replicating the situation as much as possible. For this reason, Spartan’s athletes train in settings replicating what they will experience in the ring on competition day. It is not surprising that our athletes perform so well on the local and international stages.
Stereotype threat or self-evaluation
The reason that people will often choke with a crowd is due to their self-evaluation. Working with all members on appropriate self-talk, developing self-esteem, and positive reframing is crucial to any gym that takes mental health seriously. Naturally, this is a core part of the Spartan’s Optimisation app.
A go-to cognitive switch
Athletes who become stressed often need the means to get back on to the level. A statement, or body action, is required, acting as a switch for the person to begin a calming process. The switch is known as a cognitive switch, and part of mental work with athletes and members is helping them establish a cognitive switch that they can use when their emotions become unwieldy.
Organisations have a role
Organisations have a role to play in helping members control their choke response and ensuring member progression. Stress management is not just an individual issue; organisations working with athletes must be mindful of the topics discussed in this blog and help.
Spartans takes this seriously; the progression process is evident in the design of the programs and the technical advancements in the gym. We have tools available to members to help them establish their optimal stress levels to perform. We help our athletes avoid the choke response by simulating the fight experience and ensuring they stay in procedural memory and flow.
Today’s blog is an example of how Spartans aims to optimise our athletes’ performance and regular members’ performance. Optimisation is one of the three arms of Spartans Mind, the others being repair (run in conjunction with clinical psychologists) and strengthen (our outreach programme for at-risk youth and ex-offenders). We look forward to keeping you updated on all the developments in Spartans Mind through the blog and, of course, our in-gym initiatives.
Beilock, S. (2010). Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to. Simon and Schuster.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikzentmihaly, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (Vol. 1990). New York: Harper & Row.