Throwing the game – how to avoid choking under pressure

This past month marked the 6th season of the IEM world championships and brought many of the world’s best Starcraft 2 athletes together in Hannover to compete for the Intel Masters 2011 trophy. The finals were, in many peoples’ minds, a dream rematch of the IEM Cologne finals between the fantastic protoss player SK Gaming’s MC and terran player Evil Genius’s PuMa. In the first game MC came out with a strong, aggressive style that heavily punished PuMa’s expansion strategy. Down one game, PuMa showcased his talented micromanagement by winning the next two games with picture-perfect medivac drops while simultaneously defending his home base from MC’s massive assaults. PuMa’s precise and flawless play made it feel like a terran art piece. However, game four was a depressing turning point for PuMa fans, and brings me to the topic I want to discuss this week. Choking under pressure.

Before I get into specifics on what occurred, I want to define choking more precisely. Here is an example of a normal person’s performance averaged over many different events.

Despite what it may feel like on the ladder, most people have the same number of superb games as dismal ones. Everything in the middle is our standard ability.

A technical definition

The idea of choking is a common concept for competitors. Most people use it to connote a dismal performance. Sometimes it is also used when one person or team has a very far lead and throws the game through a series of basic mistakes. To avoid misunderstanding during the article today, I want to use a more technical definition of choking. I will borrow the definition cited by Hill et. al. (2011) in his action research paper on choking in elite golf athletes:

Choking is a critical deterioration in skill execution, leading to substandard performance that is caused by an elevation in anxiety levels under perceived pressure, at a time when successful outcome is normally attainable by the athlete.

So one can see by this definition that choking can happen to all people who are performing, not just professional athletes. First a performer must be in a position where they have an average capability of winning or succeeding. Then they perform worse than average due to stress and fail instead. It’s important to note that the drop in performance is due to anxiety rather than some other common factor such as the weather, being overly tired, or playing against somebody of superior skill.

Using this definition we can examine why some athletes do not choke, and how to train choke-preventing skills.

First lets return to the MC versus PuMa match. Many people afterwards discussed how PuMa threw away a winning situation in game four. However for this article, the more interesting phenomenon is that MC did not choke. Under immense pressure, facing an opponent who had defeated him before, playing in the finals of the world championship, losing two games in a row, and having just had his army and mining force completely demolished by his opponent in what was rapidly looking like the final game of the series. In this situation, MC maintained his focus and did nothing more special than not make a single further mistake, allowing his opponent to lose the game for him.

No “bad days”

Here is a version of the above graph that represents MC and other consistent, professional athletes:

The big thing to note is that MC has developed a suite of mental skills through his competitive experience (or training) that reduces his chance of putting out a dismal performance to nearly zero. MC and athletes like him have no “bad days.” There are many terms used by the public to describe athletes who have developed these mental coping skills such as: championship mindset, mentally tough, experienced athlete, consistent performer, and hunger to win. The most important thing to realize is that a lot of these successful competitors learn these skills either through training or competitive experience. Rarely are they innate talents.

Research supports the idea that people are not born champions, but are made into them. Below is a list of mental skills often trained to reduce choking. I chose techniques that generally improve mental skills as a whole over the long-term rather than common “quick-fix” solutions that might not work a second time, since I think that creates a more holistic athlete.

Preperformance routine Reduces anxiety and enhances performance emotions
Self-talk Rationalize performance and restructure effort towards accomplishable goals
Imagery Lowers perceived pressure and encourages automatic performance of skills
Simulated practice Increases competitive experience by raising performance pressure during off-time

The cause of choking

If we return to the definition of choking, each of the above listed skills targets either the perceived pressure, also known as anxiety, that causes choking. This perceived pressure an athlete feels is differentiated from actual pressure because it is completely person dependent. Two different people might be in the exact same situation, and feel completely different amounts of pressure. For example, two people are defusing identical bombs, but one of them is an NBA star and the other is a professional bomb defuser. The NBA star may feel drastically higher anxiety in this situation. Here the actual pressure is equal, death, but the perceived pressure is dependent on if you are a basketball player or a bomb defuser. However, there is also the case of two different situations with very different actual pressure, but the perceived pressure is the same. For example, a certain eight-year-old girl taking the game winning free-throw is feeling the same pressure as a bomb-defuser about to cut a live wire.

Lowering this perceived pressure is the absolute best way to get a quick handle on a “choking” situation, because it is usually the most controllable factor in a competition, and it is the primary cause of choking. The reason perceived pressure is so controllable by mentally trained athletes is that it is completely contained in one persons mind. If one can simply convince themselves that they feel no pressure, then it’s impossible for them to choke! Of course in that case they will probably lose from being too lackadaisical, but that is covered in this article.

PuMa’s unfortunate situation

In PuMa’s situation, I would analyze that his major problem was the loss of an underdog mentality. Coming in against a big name like MC and losing handily in game 1, he ‘scraped’ by in games 2 and 3 with brilliant defenses against a terrifying army and used that adrenaline and focus to manage simultaneous drops. However, in game 3 he was in the drivers seat and stymied MC’s strategy with a decisive fight. All of a sudden he was the presumed champion, and he started playing like a gold-ranked ladder player. (For those non SC2 people, that’s better than bronze and silver, but not as good as platinum, diamond and masters.) It was very reminiscent of the 1994 Wimbledon finals between Jana Novotna and Steffi Graf. Jana was dominant throughout the tournament and series and was about to win a game and take the finals into the deciding game. She double faulted and then choked. The following ten minutes was a fascinating spiral of such abysmal tennis that Jana appeared to be a non-ranked player.

PuMa had no breaks in play during the 4th game to “reset” his mental state, as is possible in tennis. However, he could have used self-talk and imagery to put himself back into the “underdog mentality.” That is assuming that he was prepared for using such skills. Self-talk requires a bit of practice to be effective, and imagery even more so. However, it is possible to practice these outside of competition, and then come into a live performance environment and perform more like an experienced player than a novice while at the same time reducing the likelihood of choking.

Learning by playing

The most fun way to learn to compete is, of course, to compete a lot! Even so, many people fail to reflect during and after competitions, especially easy ones, and thus do not codify the skills they practiced during the event. Using self-reflection, also called meta-cognition (thinking about thinking), is one of the surefire ways to benefit from and learn mental coping strategies in a more natural and organic manner.

Simulated practice is the act of turning practice into competition. For example, in Starcraft 2 training houses many insider tournaments and scrimmages are held in an effort to enhance the mental training effect by creating a high pressure situation. League of Legends teams have more and more turned to scrimmages with other elite teams as a training method. However, these fake competitions are only as useful as the players can make them. With so little on the line, it is easy to fall into the trap of passive play and not let one’s mind treat the situation as a competition. Therefore, one thinks and plays differently, and the training effect is reduced.

To counter this, many pro athletes invest time into mentally psyching themselves up and preparing for “important” scrimmages to increase their own self-pressure. They also keep training journals and use self-reflection to improve the training effect. I highly recommend these two steps as the easiest and best way to improve practice efficiency. When training, play every game “try-hard” and keep a journal to codify any mental coping skills being refined along the way.


8 thoughts on “Throwing the game – how to avoid choking under pressure”

  1. Recently I have been finding myself at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to LoL. My duo queue partner and I lost a number of games in a row for no other reason than our mistakes, and then continued in a spiral fo doom and self-destruction. In total we lost 4 games for every 1 won over the last month or so and have fallen in our invisible ELO to the point that we are now getting people who go Akali mid against a Soraka and lose 0/5 by the 10 minute marker with no jungle ganks against her.

    This has caused both our motivations to fall dramatically. We are playing with people we KNOW we are better than, and ever since every we lost we could put down to someone else; Olaf feeding kennen 8 kills, jungler dying in every attempted gank, bottom lane non stop pushing, refusing the jungler ganks.

    It has been very frustrating, and I have no doubt that I have been playing far worse than I ussually do for it. It’s even gotten to the point where I’ve thrown a Skarner vs Lee Sin jungle game because I was just sick of Lee Sin. Our support refused to help me ward my jungle (didn’t even ward Dragon, the sob), so I had to spend massive quantities of gold on wards. And we never even killed him once in our jungle. I got SO frustrated with him that I ended up leaving the game for five minutes. I was done. I did come back, claimed the typical dc to avoid tribunal punishment and continued playing. Nonetheless, this put me so far behind and Lee Sin so far ahead that we lost the game even though our top and our AD were carrying hard.

    I’ve been trying to get my play back up ever since, but it’s a rough road. Especially in LoL, where your succes is so very reliant on other people.

    1. Your story sounds like such a struggle. It sounds like you are really trying hard to focus and do well and it just never seems to work out! How aggravating.

      Is the situation effecting your relationship with your duo queue partner? Or are you commiserating well together? It seems like the kind of situation where it might be nice to have social support, but at the same time it might drive a wedge between two people who end up just blaming each other. :/ I hope your are the former!

      What do you think the solution is?

      1. From a large background of a competitive environment, it sounds like you’re trying too hard. I did that a LOT when I competitively swam. I swam competitively for 5 years, working my way up from the bottom rung to a regional level of swimming (Speedo Championships) and almost got a national cut. In a sense, I guess that’s like saying I almost went platinum. A lot of my swimming career could be summed up as me trying too hard. I would do my absolute best in a race- and then still not win. It wasn’t my fault, I had done the best I could do, but after that I was too hard on myself and failed to reflect. I ended up destroying myself mentally because of the pressure I put on myself.

        tl;dr, I tried too hard and put too much pressure on myself, and eventually choked so hard that I quit swimming. It’s been a year since I’ve stopped swimming and I’m just now starting to not hate the idea of swimming.

        My advice is to just get a good mindset going and ignore the mistakes you make while you’re playing. Seeing your team-mates mistakes and noting them out does nothing to help you. Trying to improve people in the middle of a game is absolute suicide. Having them change their playstyle in the middle of a teamfight and losing their muscle memory is devastating to a player. Just tell your teammates that you’re gonna win. Before you start, tell yourself you’re gonna win no matter what, and believe it! (Hi, Naruto)
        Having a winning mindset and being more relaxed will open up your muscle memory in ways you haven’t thought of. You might do a pro move you never even thought of before, and only realized it after it was done.

        If ranked is still incredibly frustrating, just play normals and find ways to improve by having fun. That’s one important thing I forgot to do in swimming, was to have fun. I was all about winning and achieving my goals. When I finally did achieve my goals, I had nothing left to swim for. Setting goals is extremely important, but it’s no use if you don’t have fun along the way.

        Hope this helps.


      2. I really like your suggestion to just enjoy the game. I think doing that over the last few months has actually helped me improve skill wise when I wasn’t even concentrating on my skills. However, by the end of a game (especially a losing one) I often find myself over-involved emotionally and can’t keep up the enjoyment in the face of constant losing, people spamming, etc. I have found that ignoring people helps a lot, but I need to come up with some other techniques. Maybe soft music or something 🙂

  2. Escastus brings up a great point, and I agree completely. I had a horrible time in college when I played varsity tennis (D2), because of the same issue. During practice I was very competitive with everyone on my team. I could win practice sets and games against them, and even break the serve of guys who were almost pro-level players. Then we’d get into a match against another team, and I would lose it. I couldn’t do anything because I wanted to win SO BAD that I would play in a completely different way.

    The “western” mind set of applying a ton of pressure to athletes and valuing winning or achieving over everything else really dwarfs the aspect of competition that is the underlying issue here I think. After going 2 years in college tennis without winning a competitive match, my senior year I was over .500 because I changed how I thought about competition. It was about breaking it down into small moments of what I enjoyed and what I could control rather than focusing on that end result of the win. As much as people say it, you can’t control winning or losing. That’s not how it works. It’s a matter of using the ideas you mentioned in the post (visualization, self talk etc.) to stay in the moment. You can’t focus on the long-term goals during competition, because they you aren’t thinking about competing and you’re adding pressure and anxiety for something out of your control.

    The focus should be on the immediate goal. In my case, it was hitting each ball as it came over the net, and not worrying about anything else. The cliche “one point at a time”. Whereas in SC2 it would be more of a focus on, each game, or each stage of the game.

    For your example in the final game, one individual did a great job of isolating and just playing 4 very solid games and playing each of those games as if they were the same. The other player allowed adrenaline and momentum to carry him through 2 games, but then rode it too long and fell off the other side when emotion came into it. Can’t look too far to the future in competition, just have to worry about what’s happening, and have strategies for what *might* happen.

    1. That’s a great story that highlights how important it is to be able to focus your mental effort on things that you can actually affect. Like you said, if one spends their time trying to put all their energy and mental focus into winning, they will just tread water. The consistent winners are those that understand what small, controllable steps lead to a win and focus on those instead. Then they win (most of the time!)

      Your comment on outcome (winning/losing) and future focused mental effort as a distraction reminded me of this article:
      I think you even may have individually developed some of the same techniques that are used to help refocus attention on controllable (i.e. enjoyable) factors! I would love your comments about just how during a match you were able to bring yourself around to focus on what you now knew to be the winning edge. I wonder if they are similar techniques to the ones that researchers like to talk about in their articles.

  3. Love reading the article and comments 🙂

    I personally know that I can never play ‘casual’. I always want to win. I can accept going for “trollpicks” with some friends, but even then I try my hardest to win – and worst of all, I get upset when my team mates make obvious dumb moves which they actually know are dumb moves. Because for them, if we take “trollpicks”, they also play like a baddies. I still ‘have’ to play as good as I can, even if I limit my ability to win by intentionally selecting inferior Champions/Builds.
    In my mind it’s not really “trolling”, but actually exploring borders and edges of the game – and should I ever encounter such a weird pick/build, I’d know how to handle it.

    What I take for me now is: I should try to play without caring, but still trying, to win. Basically lowering my expectations to zero while trying to maintain the skill level fairly high. Further, when I’d need a ‘boost’ I should be able to create a little, but not too much pressure to improve my focus in a controlled manner..

    Interesting… After re-reading my post again, my last paragraph reminds me a lot of an interesting post from Sirlin..
    Found it after some search:
    I wonder to which extent such a “slowdown” is trainable.. ^^

    1. First of all, thanks for the nice comment! I’m glad you enjoy the articles.

      Hmm, I think it’s not so much “play without caring” as it is “care about the important things.” What gives you enjoyment in LoL? Winning! However, if you try really hard to “win” then it doesn’t improve your odds. You still come out 50/50 on the ladder. So in order to increase your enjoyment, try hard to do something you can control. Step 1 is to understand the factors in LoL that correlate well with winning (like not dying, warding, abusing match ups, ganking top lane, team fighting with focus, etc.) and instead of trying to “win” try to do the controllable things instead. As many coaches in the US are fond of saying, “control the controllables” and let the outcome sort itself out.

      What Sirlin is talking about is a widely recognized but as of yet not fully understood phenomenon called “flow”. There are various ways that different academic fields use the word “flow,” but in sport psychology it refers to a mental state where cares and concerns seem to fall by the wayside as the moment becomes eminently enjoyable just for the sheer fact of being in the moment, coupled with a perceived temporal distortion and a perceived ability to process stimuli and respond with no apparent effort.

      Getting into or closer to a “flow” state is one of the goals of most psychological skills training. Many athletes believe that the first step is internalizing the muscle and motor movements necessary to perform skills in their sport. Hence the non-stop repetitive practice of key movements you see in any sport training. The idea is to make it “automatic” so your mind can focus on other things. Whether or not this is necessary is up for debate, but professionals certainly seem better able to attain flow than amateurs, so something they are doing is helping.

      The fact that Sirlin could not regain “flow” his second day is quite a common story as well. How many world cups does the semi-final team beat the expected champions with a fantastic game, only to fall short and lose in the final to a worse team. It’s such a common sport story, to be “in the zone” and then not be able to recapture that moment. For me, the first hint that Sirlin was going south was when he said, “The next day, I did play Nuki on stage. I was not worried at all, and believed that I would beat him for sure.” Research has shown that one of the key factors (not always though) for achieving a flow state seems to be the “underdog mentality.” Even though Sirlin was confident his first day, he was also out to prove that his NOT practicing was still good enough to win. He perceived himself as the underdog. That changed overnight, as it were.

      Basically the idea is, if you trust that your opponent is good, maybe better than you and respect that skill, you will play sharper and harder knowing you have to to win. Playing “down” to a worse opponents level is what happens so often in ELO hell on the SC2 and LoL ladders. One of the ways that pro tennis players counteract this and help get that underdog mentality is to focus on small sections of the game (just this point) at a time and to put themselves in the correct mindset (this person is really good, but I can beat them if I focus, if I’m on my toes, alert). They try to make no unforced errors, and aim for improving their own game play and ignoring the score completely. A person who was doing this in SC2 would play the same, careful way if they were 0-0, 2-0, or 0-2 in a championship set. Similarly in LoL.

      Most of the articles on this site help with changing what the mind choses to focus on during competition or practice. But nowhere will I suggest not to enjoy winning or play without caring :), it’s more like, you care so much that you take the next step and really play to win.

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