Choke! The Dirty Five Letter Word In Sports!

The topic this month comes from an amateur equestrian who competes in show jumping. Find out how to prevent yourself from chocking when it comes down to it!
The topic this month comes from an amateur equestrian who competes in show jumping. If you have a question, please email us.


When I practice, I perform exceptionally well. However, when I am at a competition, I absolutely "choke." I become so nervous and filled with anxiety that I cannot "feel" my horse. I become full of self-doubt, worry, and become forgetful. How can I perform my best in competition?


This is a good questions because many athletes come to me with this problem. This is when you know it's mental. If you can perform well in practice, but can't take it to the field, course, or court, it is most likely a mental issue. The ability to take your "practice game" to the playing field or track, is critical if you want to be successful in your sport.

As you can see from the questions above, this person's attitude changes in several way when in competition. She is afraid to fail, anxious, nervous, forgetful, has self-doubt, loss of confidence, and is forgetful. Many of these are classic signs of fear and anxiety. The changes in your mindset that take place due to the stress of competition can vary from person to person, but the effect is still the same-a lack of timing and coordination that you had in practice. Here a few suggestions to help you take your practice to competition:

How To Take Your Practice To Competition ...

Focus on the task, not outcomes. Much of the stress this person is feeling comes from paying too much attention to results. The classic fear of failure syndrome. When you are motivated by the fear of losing or not embarrassing yourself, you are handcuffed before you even start the competition. You need to learn how to focus on one gate at a time and let go of the "what ifs."

Practice in conditions that mimic competition. One approach is to practice in a way that simulates the real competition. Many teams do this type of simulation training to get athletes prepared for the real thing. This is also what NASA does to train flight crews for space travel. Practice is most effective if you can mimic the conditions you will be faced with in competition-so you will be ready for anything.

Perform like you don't care. Sometimes athletes handcuff themselves by caring too much about their sport performance, like it is life or death. In practice, most people don't have any cares or worries about performance and are able to play free without anxiety. Try less or the same amount you "try" in practice.

Have a game plan. Most sports require you have a game plan or strategy for how to approach the competition. Baseball players have an at-bat plan, football teams have a game plan, golfers have a course strategy plan, race car drivers have a race plan, and you too should have a strategy for how to approach the gates. It may be a simple plan that says you will commit yourself (and your horse) to each jump that you approach and not approach a jump with indecision. Game plans can be simple to the more complex. Make as many decision as you can ahead of time because good decisions are hard to come by in the heat of competition.

Don't expect to "choke." I am convinced that a person's expectations can have a huge impact on their performance. If you go into competition knowing that in the past you have choked and will probably do it again, you are done from the start. I call this a self-limiting generalization or expectation. Based on a few past events where you did not perform up to you ability, you generalize that this is ALWAYS the case, especially if you have a shaky or slow start to the event.

About The Author

Dr. Patrick J. Cohn is a leading sports psychologist who consults with amateur and professional athletes. He offers mental game coaching programs for junior to professional athletes and teams. For more information on team or individual programs, visit:

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