How to Avoid Choking While Trading

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The most painful sports phenomenon to watch is choking. I can get almost nauseous when I see a skilled, highly practiced athlete fall apart in the last minute. Imagine- he’s been ahead the whole way and yet manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. We know that the stress in these situations is huge but no one wants to choke under pressure.

A couple of days ago, I was fortunate to attend a lecture by Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and the author of Choke. The book is about how our brain reacts to stressful situations and how we can mitigate the pressure that comes with it. Her research encompasses a variety of fields and has broad implications for managing stress and preventing choking.

Are there parallels for people in the markets? Of course there are. After all, we are also striving for peak performance under stressful conditions. What can we do differently in the markets to become peak performers and to avoid choking?

Let’s start by looking at how our brains act very differently when confronted by stress as compared to everyday situations. This explains why even top athletes can choke if the stakes become high enough—their brains are literally not working as they normally would. Unfortunately, because stress impacts us in the emotional nervous centers of the brain, we are always going to be vulnerable to it. The key is to find ways to prepare for and mitigate stress.

Dr. Beilock discussed the three ways that stress impacts us:

  1. You focus on step-by-step details and not on the end goal. For instance, hitters in a protracted slump will devote their focus to a variety of minute details, including the weight of their bat and how they’re wearing their pants. However, that distracts from their overall goal, which is to get a hit—and the most important things to getting a hit may be totally different. We need to stay focused on the end goal and flexible about how exactly we get there. Choking comes when we stop focusing on the overall goal and get bogged down in minor details—think of the golfer waggling his club 100 times before putting. One of the reasons that people narrow their focus to minor details is because when we feel threatened by stress, we retreat to something that we can control. We start to feel better once we can control something, even if it doesn’t actually improve our results. Heightened stress will just intensify this reaction, and soon we’ll be rearranging our deck chairs on the Titanic.
  2. By hurting our creativity. Beilock said that stress causes our brain to narrow our range of choices and to dampen our creative thought processes. The practical result is that we could lose sight of what options we have and just shut down. You see this often in sports, where at a critical moment someone won’t see the wide-open pass or will do the same-old play. It’s because they are coping with limited creativity. In addition, higher stress in one area of our life can dampen our creativity in other spheres. If you have a stressful home situation, it could hurt your creativity in the markets, even if the markets themselves are stable.
  3. Reduce our emotional control. As anyone who’s fought with their spouse can testify, our emotional regulation drops when we become stressed. This means that our personalities can become more volatile, more fearful and erratic. The flip side is that maintaining the same level of emotional control takes much more of our energy, leaving us drained. In the markets, we obviously can’t afford to have our emotions creep too much into our decision-making.

We know the pitfalls that come with stress and how stress causes us to choke. The key question: how do we not choke? Beilock has studied the topic for years and assembled a list of tactics that can help us.

  1. Reframing the stressful incident. Reframing means changing the meaning and interpretation that we attach to something. For instance, if we get into an accident and total our old, beat-up car, then we could look it as a complete disaster—or as a blessing and a chance to acquire a new, better car. Similarly, if we fail, we want to view it as a learning opportunity, not as the end of the world.

Beilock recommended exactly this approach. Drawing on research from Canadian swimmers, she said that we shouldn’t dwell on past failures like choking in an important meet. Rather, the best swimmers took those failures as a chance to identify what areas needed more practice or more attention, giving their minds something productive to occupy themselves with. Instead of replaying stressful movies in their mind, they tried to get a little bit better, one thing at time. This is actually the same method that I prescribed in a blog post entitled How to Bounce Back From Failure. This focus on improvement meant that next time they came to competition, they would be less likely to suffer from an anxiety response and thus less likely to choke.

In her talk, Beilock pointed out that our coristol levels (a chemical associated with stress) fluctuate depending on what meaning we assign to events. If we view a bad trade as proof that we are destined to failure, then our cortisol levels will rise with market volatility—but if we just think of it as a small bump in the road on our path to success then we won’t experience nearly the same stress in the markets.

  1. Meditation and brain training. There is a wide body of scientific research that supports the value of meditation in boosting our mental faculties and in reducing stress. Beilock mentioned that as few as eleven hours of meditation have been shown to alter the brain physically, leaving it better equipped to handle stress. The real value seems to be in our ability to control our focus, as we can learn to be attentive when we need to be and to relax otherwise. The periods of letting our attention wander, like daydreaming, are highly beneficial for our brain, as it gets a break from being constantly engaged. This prepares us better for when do we have to be completely engaged, like in the markets.

She cited being in nature as something that can really help to manage our attention, allowing us to switch off from stress and the constant tug on our attention span from smartphones, work, etc. Being in nature, or even just looking at pictures of nature, have been shown to boost our overall resilience to stress.

  1. Practice under similar conditions. Part of the stress of a performance situation is that it is unfamiliar — and much harder than what we are used to. We can practice throwing a football with our friend in the yard and do it well, but it’s a new challenge when we have four huge guys getting in our face and trying to sack us or block the pass. The second would be much more stressful … if we hadn’t practiced it. Unfortunately, most of us prepare for game time by doing the first, leading to stress and choking when the difficulty increases dramatically.

Beilock recommended practicing under similar conditions to what we will experience in the game. She cited the example of Southern Utah University, which shot up the NCAA rankings for three throw percentage by changing how they practiced free throws. Instead of shooting a few in a drill before practice started, they started to practice free throws in the middle of games—with penalties if they didn’t make them. By practicing under more stressful conditions, they were no longer surprised and stressed during real games—it was something they had already learned how to deal with.

  1. How we hold our body and our physiology. How we feel can impact our physiology and how we carry ourselves. If we’re having a bad day, we can be dragging a bit or slump deeply into our chair. If we are feeling great then we will stand tall and puff out our chests a bit. We all know that our moods will change our physiology—but the remarkable thing is that the reverse holds too. As Beilock tells us, how we hold our body can have a big impact on our moods. Thus, some of the ways to deal with stress should include changing our posture. While it depends on the environment, we should still try to sit or stand straight; to adopt the so-called “power posture” where we are standing with our shoulders back and our feet spread apart; and making ourselves smile, whether or not we feel happy, because it will boost our mood.
  1. Journaling. Beilock identified journaling as an activity to do before an event, to reduce the anxiety attached to it. It gives us a chance to address our anxiety head on, by dumping out our thoughts about said event and hopefully realizing that the stressor isn’t as intimidating as we had previously feared. For any potentially stressful situation, it’s important to hold empowering thoughts, like realizing that failure won’t be the end of the world and that we have practiced over and over for this. Such thoughts lift a huge emotional burden from our shoulders, making it more likely for us to succeed.

This is Beilock’s advice and it’s all solid. I think that we would be helped by doing any one of these, especially practicing under the most strenuous conditions possible. We can most likely attribute most of the success of great athletes like Michael Jordan and Jerry Rice to their famously grueling practice regimens, which more than prepared them for game-time conditions. Jerry Rice summed up his philosophy about exceptional practice by saying that “Today I will do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t”.

Is there anything else that can we do to prevent choking? The popular and academic literature on peak performance places a large emphasis on mental practice as a helpful supplement to regular physical practice. A famous study by Alan Richardon demonstrated that visualizing free throws was as effective as actually shooting free throws. While it may sound fanciful, it works because mental practice utilizes the same brain circuitry as regular practice, thereby strengthening the existing neural connections. The more that you reinforce these neural pathways, then the more automatic your behavior becomes—and the less likely it is that external stress can disrupt you. I have written an extensive guide on mental practice and visualization for traders to help you.

What are the lessons for traders? We need to bring all of Beilock’s lessons to bear in the markets. My takeaways would be as follows:

  • Adopt a growth mindset. As Carol Dweck discussed in her wonderful book, Mindset, there are two mindsets: growth and fixed. A fixed mindset assumes that our abilities are inherent and largely fixed and that our success or failure at a particular task is a just a reflection of our innate ability. On the other hand, a growth mindset assumes that success at a particular endeavor is a reflection of effort, and that we can keep working to improve and conquer obstacles. A growth mindset is much more conducive to success, because it encourages us to keep working and doesn’t take failure personally—we view failures as temporary setbacks, rather than as a reflection of a complete lack of ability. By viewing failures as temporary, we give ourselves permissions to fail, lowering the emotional stakes. It also makes it easier to reframe and bounce back from any setbacks, as we will concentrate on making the necessary changes and doing the work to get better. Remember, a muscle must be broken down and will hurt before it grows again. This is the lesson we should take from Bielock’s points about reframing stressful incidents.
  • Perfect practice makes perfect. Everyone has heard the rule of thumb that 10,000 hours of practice are necessary to achieve mastery. I think that a better rule would be that we need 10,000 hours of perfect practice to achieve mastery—as bad practice is of no help at all.

For trading, we need to do all of the things that look like practice and to do them at the highest level. Practice could include our daily preparation before the markets open and on the weekends; a careful and regular review of what we’ve been doing in the markets. If we are not actively trading, then perfect practice could mean following the markets and paper trading before we start risking real money, in order to simulate the experience. As our practice gets better and more conscientious we will be better prepared for any experience and our actions will become automatic. This is the only way to prevent choking.

  • Mental practice. As I just highlighted, mental practice is another way to work out the same mental circuits that we use in doing the activity for real. Mental practice provides us with a way to simulate events and to rehearse possibly stressful scenarios which we can’t actually practice—like hitting the game-winning shot at the buzzer.
  • Rest and relaxation. Since trading is mostly mental, it can be mentally fatiguing and we need to recharge our batteries. Just as Beilock highlighted about relaxing our attention span and enjoying nature, we need to find ways to rest and to relax. They could involve spending nature time in nature, or running, or reading a good book that completely absorbs you. Whatever you favorite type of R&R is, find a way to incorporate it into your life regularly, such as every day after work or when the markets aren’t open. Your brain needs to recover from the stress, otherwise it will be too worn down to perform at its peak. If you don’t have enough focused attention left, then you will end up choking exactly when you don’t want to.
  • A journal for traders and investors can take many forms, including keeping track of positions, market thoughts, etc. It’s important to discuss some of your thoughts and feelings related to the markets. As Beilock highlighted in her talk, the mere act of getting them onto paper or the computer screen will help you to crystallize what’s going on and to relieve some of the tension. Usually, when you can see them written down, you’ll realize that some of your anxiety is not warranted—and to help take a different, more constructive viewpoint. Make a place in your journal to get your thoughts, feelings, frustrations on to paper. It will help you to cope better.

Choking can be a terrifying experience, but it doesn’t necessarily have to happen. With proper preparation and ongoing management of stress, we can get ourselves in the right state, so that we are always performing at or near our best. By integrating the advice of one of the world’s experts on choking, we can take our performance to the next level.

Choking – and how to avoid it

Learn how to reduce your nerves

Saturday, September 17, 2005

by Greg Letts – an Australian state coach, an International Umpire and one of the top ranked players in his country.

Nerves, or ‘choking’ as it is commonly known, will affect just about every table tennis player at some point in their career. But what is it that makes some of us more prone to it than others? And can we reduce our tendency to ‘choke’?

Avoiding the choke – things to do in practice

Train hard to improve your overall standard – notice how you always have less nerves when you are playing someone below your level and you are confident you will win? So the better you get, the more opponents will be below you in level, and the less you will get nervous.

When practicing – play for money/drinks, table hire etc to help get used to playing under pressure. Please note that I am not advocating gambling for children here – kids can do other things such as the loser doing pushups – good for the fitness too!

Be realistic about your standard – don’t expect to play at a higher level than you really are – also don’t expect to be slack and lazy in training and then play great in your matches. You aren’t going to play any better than you train.

Train hard with intensity – so that your training is just as hard and important as your matches – this will make your matches easier to play. Your training should be focussed and intense, while your matches should be enjoyable. The matches are where you benefit from all that hard training, you should be relaxed and enjoying yourself while playing – just like when you first started – if you can remember that far back!

Training is where you push yourself hard and find your limits and what you can and can’t do at the moment – matches are where you play up to your limits, but not trying to push too far beyond them – so playing matches should be easier than doing training. If they are not, you are doing things the wrong way around!

Remember, you’ve spent your time training to loop, hit, chop etc – and play a certain style. It makes no sense to do all that hard work and then go out and play another way just because you are nervous. Make the most of all that training and play your matches the same way – if you are going to lose go down playing the way that you dreamed of and have worked at – don’t be too scared to do anything. Trust me, it’s much better to sit back afterwards and think ‘Well, I was nervous but I tried to play the right game regardless, but I wasn’t good enough today,’ compared to ‘I tightened up and started to play too safe – maybe if I had played the way I know I should I might have won!’ You’ll have a much better peace of mind.

Try to reflect on what was different between the times when you got to the quarters and semis, compared to the times you lost early on. Poor warming up, rushing to get to the match, taking early opponents too easy, etc can all help cause inconsistent performance. Even going out late the night before, or drinking too much or not getting enough sleep can all affect your level of play. If you can find a common factor in your poor performance, try to get rid of it or avoid it where possible.

One thing I find is the more I train, and the better I train, the less nervous I get. I know exactly how good (or bad!) I am playing, and how well I will play when I get into my match. When you don’t play often you never really know what to expect on any day, and this can make you nervous, since you are never quite sure how you will play on the day.

  • Visualise playing matches while training – imagine that you are playing in the World Championships finals. If you do a good job, you will feel your heartbeat quicken and your tension rise as your body responds to the mental image – once that happens, practice calming yourself back down while still playing hard.
  • Avoiding the choke – reducing your nerves before the match

    Be prepared – no last minute rush getting to the match. Give yourself plenty of time to get there, report in, and warm up thoroughly. You want to be calm and unhurried before your match, not stressed and rushing around in a panic.

    Be thoroughly warmed up – a cold body is more prone to stiffness and freezing up. You want your body, and especially your wrist, hand and arm, to be warm and loose. The usual rule of thumb is to warm up until you get a light sweat going. If you are sweating but your hands are still cold, start wearing gloves and doing more upper body warming up (ie shadow boxing, shadow play etc).

    If it is mainly before matches that you are getting tight and nervous, avoid anything that over-excites you, such as caffeine in coffee or energy drinks, nicotine from cigarettes, too much loud rock music etc. Listen to soothing music, use self hypnosis, or try deep, rhythmic breathing etc to calm down instead.

    If you sit and worry about upcoming matches too much, go and chat with friends or listen to music to take your mind off the match. If you need time to calm down by yourself, make sure that no-one bothers you before a match. Copy the tennis players and put your towel over your head if you have to so that you can be left alone to calm yourself.

    Avoiding the choke – things to do during your match

    Take slow, deep breaths to smooth out your breathing and your nerves/game. When you get nervous you tend to breathe quickly and shallowly, so by keeping your breath slow and deep you will help fight off the tension.

    When starting the match, ease into things gently. Start off just trying to do the basics really well for the first half of the first game. Once you have hit a few balls well and are into the match, start increasing the power in your game.

    Keep moving – stay on the balls of your feet – stay loose and DON’T stand still.

    Concentrate on your tactics and what you are doing right, how you are going to stay loose etc. Don’t focus on your nerves or getting tight. Stick to thinking about what you are doing well, so that you are keeping positive thoughts in your brain.

    Repeat to yourself – “loose” – while moving around lightly on your toes.

    Study your opponent, it’s quite likely that he is getting nervous too – which makes you even.

    During training, find your natural playing rhythm that you play best at – and then make sure that you stick to this rhythm during a match – don’t let your opponent force you to play faster or slower.

    Routines – having little routines, habits and rituals can sometimes allow you to focus on the routine rather than any nerves – this is why people bounce the ball on the floor or racket several times – the routine is easy to perform, and you can clear your mind and loosen your body while it leads you naturally into your serve or return of serve.

    Good days/bad days – everyone has them – and if you don’t train a lot you will have a wider variation between your best day and worst day – you need to accept this.

    Worry less about winning the particular match you are about to play, and more about your standard of play. You are trying to lift your standard over the next few years, this is more important than whether you win a certain match today. So if you are 9 all in the last game – you have played to a certain standard in that match, and the last 2 points won’t really change the standard you have played at – so just play them as well as you can but don’t stress about them.

    Treat all matches as equally important – every win counts, but not too much by itself. In 5 years from now, you won’t remember all the matches you won or lost, but you will be a lot better than you are now, which is the main thing.

    If you are tightening up with nerves, remember that you know that you have to be loose and relaxed to play good Table Tennis – so if you are tight you are not going to play well and will probably lose anyway – so if you are going to lose – why not relax and stop worrying about it, and maybe you will play a bit better.

    Also, when you feel you are tightening up, try to make your movements larger and wrist snap a bit more than usual – as you tighten you tend to move less and jerkily, so try to move a bit more and keep it smooth. Keep the wrist as loose and relaxed as possible. Your wrist is possibly the most important part of your body when playing table tennis, so keep it nice and relaxed at all times.

  • Finally, everyone gets nervous – a little bit of excitement is normal for everybody and makes you play better, and stay more alert. Don’t expect to get rid of every bit of nerves – it will never happen. You actually need some nerves to keep alert, focused and concentrated. Remember, when there is no pressure at all, it is very easy to get lazy and make mistakes – so a little bit of nerves will keep you concentrating hard and stop you from getting slack.
  • Conclusion

    Having said all that, of course you won’t remember all of it when it comes time to play a match. But if you can remember just one or two things to try when you start to get nervous, at least you know you are doing something positive about it, rather than just suffering from the problem. And if what you try doesn’t work, give something else a go! To paraphrase a line from Brad Gilbert’s “Winning Ugly”, which is an excellent book for any table tennis player to read – it’s better to have a bad plan to combat your nerves than no plan, since at least a bad plan can be improved upon and made into a better plan – and better plans win matches. So pick a couple of points to try next time, and start improving your own plan ASAP.

    © 2005-2020 Greg Letts

    You may also read Greg’s blog and purchase Australian TT videos from Greg’s own website

    The Cause of Choking and How to Avoid it (1 pages)

    the cause of choking and how to avoid it

    The Cause of Choking and How to Avoid it!

    By Dr. Alan Goldberg, Sports Psychologist

    So how well do you stay calm and composed under the pressure of big meet competition? Your ability to stay relaxed under stress is absolutely
    critical for fast swims because THE SECRET to swimming fast when it counts the most is that you have to stay LOOSE! If you get too nervous, it

    becomes physiologically impossible for you to swim to your potential because runaway nerves leave your muscles tight and speed up and constrict

    your breathing. When these two changes happen, your stroke shortens, your endurance gets compromised and you’ll swim way below your

    In this article, I’d like to identify the major cause of performance disrupting nervousness for you, the mental trap that so many swimmers fall into. If

    you know ahead of time what causes your nervousness to spike and wreck your performance, then you are in a position to be able to consistently

    avoid falling into that trap! Awareness of this trap is the absolute key to staying out of it!

    So many swimmers ask me, “How come I get so nervous before all my important races?” or “Why do I tend to choke at my championship meets?” or

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    “Why do I get so psyched out by certain other swimmers?” and the answers to these questions lie in a very simple concentration mistake that far too

    many swimmers make, both before and even during their races. When you make this FOCUSING mistake, it will ALWAYS result in excessive

    nervousness and disappointing swims!

    The mistake has to do with allowing your pre-race or during race focus to go to a group of things that I call the UCs, which I will translate for you in

    just a few moments. When you are getting ready for a race or meet, if either before or during your race you are concentrating on one of these UCs,

    then you will set into motion inside a series of performance-disrupting events.

    First, your level of NERVOUSNESS will INCREASE. Second, when you get nervous, your MUSCLE TENSION will automatically INCREASE. Third,

    the amount of NEGATIVE THINKING and SELF-DOUBTS bopping around inside your cranium will increase. And Fourth, when you’re flooded with

    negativity and doubts, your SELF-CONFIDENCE will DO A NOSE DIVE. And finally, and a result of all of these above, your RACE
    PERFORMANCE will go down the proverbial tubes.

    So what are the UCs? The UCs stand for a group of things that I call the UNCONTROLLABLES. An uncontrollable is anything that you don’t have

    DIRECT CONTROL OVER right now. DIRECT is the key word here. If you go into a race and either before or during that event you’re focusing on
    things that you don’t have direct control over, then you will start to get nervous, physically tighten up, lose your confidence and perform way below

    I recently had a first session with a 16 year old swimmer who hasn’t gone fast in her best event, in breaststroke for over 9 months. Her problem
    seemed to be related to overwhelming nervousness, the nights before and the day of the meet. By the time race time rolled around, this swimmer

    claimed that she was a “9.5” on the 0 – 10 scale of nervousness where 0 is your cool, calm and collected and 10 is you’re so stressed out, you’re

    having a complete melt down! Her pre-race focus of concentration the week of the meet and right up until the race’s start was totally on

    UNCONTROLLABLES! She kept thinking of the Nationals she went to 9 months previous when she completely fell apart. She worried, “what if it
    happens again.
    ” She focused on all of the other swimmers in her heat and how good and fast she thought they were. She thought about the

    extended consequences for having another bad meet. that is, her coaches would be disappointed in her, her parents might be upset, her friends will

    think she’s just not that good any more. She worried that unless she could break out of this prolonged slump, her chances of swimming at a decent

    college would be compromised!

    So what UC’s did this athlete get hung up on? The PAST and previous bad performances, (last Nationals); The FUTURE and what’s going to happen

    next; Everything about the OTHER SWIMMERS, (i.e. size, strength, reputation, skill level, attitude, etc.); OTHER PEOPLE’S EXPECTATIONS, (i.e.

    disappointing coach, parents or friends); What COLLEGE COACHES might think and therefore her chances of getting a scholarship, (the future!)
    What else is also out of your direct control? Everything about the pool, (water temperature, air quality, air temperature, depth, blocks, lighting, etc.),

    the weather, (outdoor meets), how big the race is, whether you make finals or not (future), how you feel that day, the starter and meet officials, who’s

    in your heat, lane assignment, the unexpected happening, (i.e. you get called down from the blocks and have to wait 15 minutes for the touch pads

    to be fixed), etc.

    Understand that the UNCONTROLLABLES ARE MENTAL TRAPS! They are lying in wait for you and every other swimmer at that meet. How do you

    avoid a trap? FIRST, you have to see it! You have to be able to identify it! You have to be aware! Without knowing what the traps are, without being

    aware of them, then you are much more vulnerable to falling into them, over and over again! So I would suggest that you sit down right now and list

    all of the UCs that in the past, have knocked you off track. Think back to a time when you choked, got intimidated or otherwise swam way below your
    potential and I can guarantee that what you were focusing on either before and/or during that event were UCs! Write them down on a piece of paper

    and then post that list in your room in a highly visible place! One of the very first steps in mastering the UCs is KNOWING exactly what they are!

    So how should you handle the UCs? Whenever you find yourself thinking about or focusing on something that you have no control over, you want to

    quickly recognize that your focus is off, and then just as quickly, return your focus to something that you can control, (i.e. your pre-race ritual behind
    the blocks, stretching, talking to a friend, etc.).

    Remember while there are a lot of things you can’t directly control at that big meet, the one thing that you can always LEARN to control is HOW YOU

    REACT to all of the UCs! The uncontrollables won’t hurt you as long as you don’t allow them extended air time in your head! The instant you become
    aware that you’re “entertaining” a UC in your head, quickly bring yourself back!

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