It’s Your Moment. Find Out How You Can Keep From Choking Under Pressure.

Dayton Kelly

This article was adapted from a combination of speeches given at the European Sports Science Conference 2018, most notably Denise Hill (SWANSEA UNIVERSITY, UK), Christopher Mesagno (FEDERATION UNIVERSITY, AUSTRALIA), and Juergen Beckmann (TECHNICAL UNIVERSITY MUNICH, GERMANY)

Life and sport are filled with moments of pressure; everyone has experienced instances when the failure to perform will result in devastating consequences. For the athlete, this may be the penalty kick to win the championship game or the last jump of an Olympic figure skating performance. In such situations, one’s worst fear is to choke under pressure. In this context, choking can be defined as a poor performance that deviates outside of the individual’s norm as a result of perceived pressure (Beckmann, Gröpel, & Ehrlenspiel, 2013). While some individuals seem resilient to choking, many are not. In fact, some individuals experience chronic choking that can destroy careers and produce lifelong feelings of self-loathing. 

What produces choking?

Choking under pressureWhile many reasons for choking exist, two main attention-based models are currently used to explain choking: the distraction model and the self-focus model (Mesagno & Beckmann, 2017; Beckmann et al., 2013). Under both models, the choker feels increasing anxiety associated with the performance event, leading to altered attentional focus during the task (Mesagno & Beckmann, 2017). The distraction model suggests that anxiety causes the individual to focus on external elements of the environment irrelevant to the task at hand (Mesagno & Beckmann, 2017). For example, a soccer player may be focusing on the size of the crowd and expression of his coach before a penalty kick rather than the position of the ball and goaltender. These external elements consume attentional resources leaving insufficient focus to properly complete the task (Mesagno & Beckmann, 2017).

By comparison, the self-focus model suggests that performance anxiety causes the individual to focus too intently on the upcoming task: immense pressure to perform causes the performer to over analysis minute aspects of the necessary movement pattern (Beckmann et al., 2013). For example, when taking a golf shot the shooter may consciously attempt to control small aspects of the shot such as the position of his/her toes or the tightness of their grip on the handle. This fundamentally differs from that the normal automatic “feeling” experts usually rely on to perform tasks (Beckmann et al., 2013).

Related Article: 4 Ways to Overcome Sports Performance Anxiety

Overcontrolling Actions

Overcontrolling actions is more analogous to the cognitive operations required by amateurs (Beckmann et al., 2013). Amateurs must explicitly think about and internally verbalize each element of a movement rather than rely on a feeling (Beckmann et al., 2013). This process is associated with high activation of the left hemisphere of the brain as compared to more automatic skill performance which is right hemisphere dominated (Beckmann et al., 2013). Overcontrolling actions, and left hemisphere dominance which occurs during overcontrolled task performance, causes breakdown of the smooth, expert motions necessary for successful performance (Beckmann et al., 2013). When this overcontrol occurs in athletes due to high pressure, the result is poor performance and choking.

While self-focused choking is thought to be the most common form of choking, distraction-based choking also occurs (Mesagno & Beckmann, 2017; Mesagno & Mullane-Grant, 2010). Choking is probably best explained on an individual basis by a combination of the two models (Mesagno & Beckmann, 2017).

Related Article: The Most Effective Coping Technique for Competition Performance

What can we do to stop choking?

Your strategy to prevent choking under pressure should depend on the type of choking you are experiencing: distraction-based or self-focused (Mesagno & Beckmann, 2017). The best-supported method of reduced distraction-based choking is the development of a pre-performance routine. This routine should consist of a series of movements or actions (e.g. deep breaths, slapping thighs, etc.) prior to the initiation of the skill (Mesagno & Mullane-Grant, 2010). This process is thought to draw attention from external factors and direct it towards the skill which consistently proceeds it (Mesagno & Mullane-Grant, 2010). Accordingly, players who perform preperformance routines demonstrate more resilience of the skill under pressure (Mesagno & Mullane-Grant, 2010). These effects are further improved when routines last longer and are performed more consistently (Mesagno & Mullane-Grant, 2010).

It may be simpler than you think.

Choking under pressureTo combat self-focused choking, it turns out it may be as easy as clenching your fist (Mesagno & Beckmann, 2017). Despite its simplicity, fist clenching for 15 seconds has emerged as a reliable manner to reduce self-focused choking when performed immediately before the task (Beckmann et al., 2013). It usefulness reflects the neural priming effect it has on the brain (Cross-Villasana, Doppelmayr, & Beckmann, 2015). Left-handed fist clenching strongly activates the right hemisphere of the brain and produces a period of reduced activity across the cortex following (Cross-Villasana et al., 2015). This period of relaxation is thought to suppress input from the left hemisphere that disrupts performance during self-focused choking (Cross-Villasana et al., 2015; Mesagno & Beckmann, 2017).

In applied investigations, fist clenching translates into rescued performance under pressure situations in numerous sports (Beckmann et al., 2013). High pressure during a task reliably induces worse performance relative to enactments when the participant is unstressed (Beckmann et al., 2013). When 15 seconds of continuous left-hand clenching with or without an enclosed object is included prior to completion of the high-pressure task, performance no longer differs from unstressed trials (Beckmann et al., 2013). Importantly, these effects are seen only with the left hand, but not the right (which does not cause as large a reduction in cortical activity; Cross-Villasana et al., 2015; Beckmann et al., 2013).

Related Article: Competitive-anxiety & Its Effect on Heart Rate in Swimmers


Choking can have devastating consequences and may manifest in different forms. An accumulating body of evidence suggests a pre-performance routine and fist clenching can reduce distraction-based and self-focused choking, respectively (Mesagno & Beckmann, 2017). It may be worthwhile to incorporate fist clenching into a pre-performance ritual in order to best combat both forms of choking. Future research is necessary to see if the effects of fist clenching may be reduced over repeated use or if the compressibility of the object clenched moderates the effect.

Regardless, don’t forget your pre-performance ritual and to clench your left fist before your next big moment!


Beckmann, J., Gröpel, P., & Ehrlenspiel, F. (2013). Preventing motor skill failure through hemisphere-specific priming: Cases from choking under pressure. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142(3), 679. doi:

Cross-Villasana, F., P, G., Doppelmayr, M., & Beckmann, J. (2015). Unilateral left-hand contractions produce widespread depression of cortical activity after their execution. PloS one, 10(12), 145867. doi:

Mesagno, C., & Beckmann, J. (2017). Choking under pressure: Theoretical models and interventions. Current Opinion in Psychology, 16, 170-175. doi:

Mesagno, C., & Mullane-Grant, T. (2010). A comparison of different pre-performance routines as possible choking interventions. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 22(3), 343-360. doi:

You Might Like:

Man running on a path

The Autoimmune Athlete

Hunter Bennett Being an elite athlete poses a unique set of challenges that very few people are emotionally, physically, and mentally prepared for. Gruelling training sessions, an incredibly strict diet, and a lifestyle that is...
man running on a mountain trail

How Hydration Affects Short Endurance Performance

Hunter Bennett Staying adequately hydrated has long been considered one of the most important aspects of sports nutrition. This does seem logical if you think about it. We know that the human body is made...
woman checking her pulse

Atrial Fibrillation, Exercise & Health

Hunter Bennett One of the biggest issues we modern society has to deal with is a decline in cardiovascular health and function. To be honest, it is seriously at near epidemic proportions. Within this, the...
woman drinking water

Water and Hydration

Hunter Bennett Given that your body is approximately 60 percent water, it stands to reason that it is essential for health. However, few people realize how incredibly important drinking enough water is. Unfortunately, very few...
woman sitting by a couch

Menopause and Depression

Hunter Bennett Menopause is considered to be a time of great change. A time where the body undergoes a myriad of physical and physiological alterations – all of which essentially indicates the end of the...
woman stretching and looking at a view of the mountains

Endurance Athletes: Why Women Win In The Long Run

Hunter Bennett It is commonly thought that when it comes to athletic endeavors, men have a bit of genetic advantage. Due to their enhanced capacity to build more muscle mass and develop greater amounts of...
Are Plant-Based Protein Drinks Effective for Exercise Recovery?

Are Plant-Based Protein Drinks Effective for Exercise Recovery?

Is Milk the Perfect Recovery Drink?

Is Milk the Perfect Recovery Drink?

girl on her phone

Cell Phone Activity Trackers

Effects of Dehydration on Athletic Performance

Effects of Dehydration on Athletic Performance

Ice Baths- Help or Hinder?

Ice Baths- Help or Hinder?

Woman standing on the beach in athletic gear pointing at the sky

The Best Workout Combination: Endurance Training and HIIT

Muscle Growth and Loss

Muscle Growth and Loss

FODMAP and exercise

FODMAPS and Exercise

Nitrate Vegetable Supplementation

Can Nitrate Rich Vegetables Boost Your Endurance?

Aerobic Exercise and Learning

Does Aerobic Exercise Improve Learning?

Leave a Reply