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by Renzie Hanham

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All too often in sport, and of course in life, we are fascinated by individuals and teams that choke at critical times.

By choking I mean that an individual or group stops functioning at their usual level and noticeably underperforms. It's usually when we are under pressure, or at least perceive that we are under pressure, that 'choking' occurs. We don't choke when there is no pressure. Some of our best performances are away from the tyranny of expectation, the glare of scrutiny or the abyss of consequences.

Expectation, scrutiny and consequences are a product of pressure, and they also create pressure. They can raise our performance to new heights or they can inhibit us to such an extent that we shut down, freeze and can't perform.

These three aspects are related to outcomes. The more significant the outcome, the more pressure there is. When the pressure is perceived as being severe enough our brains and body react accordingly.

Our response is dependent on information being transferred via our neural pathways. This in turn changes the individual's emotional and physiological state.

Our brains store memories of fearful experiences in the past. This means that individuals often respond to situations as if they are threatening when in reality they are not. Experiences from 30 years ago can be re- experienced as if they were happening here and now. Some of these emotional memories were stored before other parts of our brain were fully developed and functional, so they couldn't be placed into some kind of rational context and framework.

Each situation that we experience triggers an emotional and physiological response and prepares the body for action. After this, the information is transmitted to our brain, which analyses the detail and sends a message that prepares the body and considers whether the threat is real or not.

The problem is that once an emotion is turned on, it is difficult to turn it off. This can lead to freezing, or more significantly, panic. The brain in effect talks to itself.

Choking could be seen as a milder form of freeze. The individual can still perform but not to the same level because parts of their brains are shutting down. As a result, decision-making becomes difficult and the individual's attention starts to fixate. In essence they misrepresent what is happening and lose the ability to adapt and adjust. They lose the ability to think clearly and maintain an overview. Their world shrinks as they react to what they perceive is happening. They reach their threshold for coping with the situation at hand and go into overwhelm.

We all have our story around an event. These stories are important and of course they can become life defining. The risk of course is that they become the main way in which we define our lives, which is very normal, but not necessarily useful long term.

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