Mind over matter: How athletes overcome the subconscious

Every athlete has faced a high-pressure moment in his or her career, whether it's the free throw that could tie the game or the race of a lifetime, and even the greatest competitors can falter in these moments.

Even if "choking" can't be overcome completely – after all, nobody is perfect – there are simple steps everyone can take to improve their mental game. Daniel Gould, a professor of applied sports psychology at Michigan State University, and Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago psychologist, told The Associated Press how to prevent nerves from hijacking an athlete's body:

♦ Create high-pressure environments during practice. Train in front of a video camera or friends. It is easier to handle the stress of having "every eye on you" when those situations occur all the time.
♦ Don't think about it. The most successful competitors remove themselves from the mechanics of stressful moments. They separate the goal and focus on the process. For example, when trying to make a free throw, don't think about the potential points or the ball going into the basket. Instead, focus on throwing it straight or feeling the pebbling leave your fingers just right.
♦ Have a routine. This could be the repetition of a mantra, a song you always listen to or even a "superstitious" behavior always performed before the moment. In this way, mentally, every time you walk up to the line begins the same way.
♦ Let it go. If you miss the shot, it's okay to be disappointed – as long as you can ditch the emotion after a minute or two. Athletes who focus on the aspects of the game they can control have the advantage.

While each athlete has to find out what works for him, these strategies can help players at all levels combat tension in crunch time.