Help your child overcome 'choking'

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

"Choking" is knowing how to do something, having successfully have done it before, yet being unable in pressure situations to focus and execute.

In youth sports, choking is common-especially when kids are just beginning to learn and master skills and play against unfamiliar competition. This month, I'll tell you why choking occurs and what you can do to help your child minimize it the next time she takes to the field or court.

Choking almost always begins with fear. Fear can be a real threat (a dog chasing you down the street), or irrational worry (worrying about what someone might think if you miss this next shot). Regardless of the source, our bodies respond with anxiety in the same exact way.

Our bodies don't distinguish between a chasing dog or knowing people are watching-the physical anxiety (increased heart rate; tense, tight muscles; and shallow breathing) will be experienced similarly.

Once fear kicks into negative anxiety, your child's mind will begin to focus on the physical symptoms instead of thinking about the next play. Most young athletes will then start talking to themselves, saying things like "don't screw up," or "don't miss this next shot." Guess what happens next? You got it-the shot is missed. Once self-talk becomes negative and conservative, your child will begin to focus only on irrelevant, potentially negative thoughts.

When that shot is missed, young athletes usually experience even more negative energy, more fear and more anxiety. It's amazing all this starts with fear-and irrational fear at that. Think about it-there is no real fear when playing sports, yet how many thousands of young athletes allow their minds and bodies to experience fear as though their lives were in danger?

If you want to help your child minimize choking, try the following tips:

  • When he starts getting nervous while playing, ask him where the fear is coming from. Is your child worried what someone will think if he misses? Is he concerned with who is watching him play? If he is feeling either of these things, have him stop what he's doing, stand up, take a few deep breaths and remind himself that it is irrational fear.
  • Breathing through the stomach is the best way to immediately calm the body down. Teach your child to take two or three deep belly breaths and watch how quickly her body responds.
  • Self-talk is also a great way to refocus and remain calm in tough situations. Teach your child to use words like "focus" or "stay cool" so her mind and body will respond accordingly.
  • Once your child conquers fear, confidence will take over. His mind and body will be in sync, he'll experience "the zone" more often, and his self-talk will be more positive.

More resources

Dr. Chris Stankovich offers individual athletic counseling and team/league seminars. Call (614) 561-4482, or visit for more details.