Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Rolling is all in your mind … Why you should know about “Choking” in sport by Tavi Murray

Rolling is all in your mind … Why you should know about “Choking” in sport.

How many people do you know who have lost their roll just before an assessment? Maybe it’s happened to you? If so you probably experienced what is called “choking” … Intrested, then read on to find out what happens in your head and how to prevent it …

I have a pretty good roll in my sea kayak. Last year I swam just twice, once pinned against a wall at the Falls of Lora and once surfing. I lost count of the many rolls I did in anger, mostly in the surf.

I decided it was time to go for my 5* sea assessment … I worked hard in preparation … practicing things like map reading in the dark and surfing, and I took countless friends off around Ramsey Island, St David’s Head and to the Bitches tide race (thanks all!). Last winter I got Roger to run some 5* weekends based around mock assessments. Everything felt on track.

But one weekend this February it nearly fell apart: I lost my roll.

It was supposed to be an “advanced” weekend with another provider. Saturday morning we were deliberately rolling on both sides while side surfing … some of mine were 2nd or 3rd attempts, I wasn’t thinking much about it – I was up and paddling again after all.

Then I let the person coaching into my head … “Hey Tavi, your roll isn’t bomber at the moment, do you want me to have a look?” Doubt started, after all I was acutely aware I had an assessment looming. “Ok” … I rolled offside, set up … effortless.

“That was perfect, try this, I find it usually breaks a roll …” and it did. Within minutes I was over thinking, trying to concentrate on sweeping, on blade angle, on set up … on whatever would give me that effortless roll back … and all the time doubts about assessment and the fear of losing my roll crept into my mind. That day I was a rolling beginner. I could roll maybe one attempt in 10 on flat water and it wasn’t my effortless roll at all.

Overnight I was really stressed. I had an assessment in a few weeks. Maybe I should cancel it? Maybe I’d lost my roll? How could I enjoy paddling without a roll? Sunday my roll was worse, so in the end I just got on with surfing …

Monday I was in the pool, playing polo with the teenagers I’d been coaching. My roll was back, effortless again. And the next day I took my sea kayak to a pool session, and rolled and self-rescued maybe 50 or 100 times, no thinking, no pressure, effortless.


A chance encounter with Roger led to an email exchange (I’m in the Coastal Spirit mentoring program – which I highly recommend!), and in his answer Roger suggested looking at “choking” in sport. It seems this is what I had experienced. Choking is the phenomenon that causes famous golfers under pressure to miss easy shots that will win them major tournaments, and causes footballers to miss the goal posts entirely during championship penalty shoot outs.

Choking causes loss of automatic behaviour, turning an expert into a beginner. It is caused by focussing on the uncontrollables, which includes “am I losing my roll” or the outcome of an assessment, rather than the “now”. It isn’t helped by thinking consciously about the process (overthinking) – in fact that makes it worse. But reading around I found there are research-evidence based methods to reduce the risk of choking …

One method involves thinking about a holistic, positive description of your roll (after all it’s impossible to not think at all!) … For me this would be “effortless” which is what all my good rolls are. So I concentrate on the word “effortless” as I roll. For you the description might be very different! I suspect the phrase Roger has mentioned he uses, “I’m coming up” fits this well.

The other sounds a little odd to start with … but is to do with activating the right-hand (RH) side of the brain. This is the part of the brain that controls automatic behaviour such as an expert undertaking a task (rather than consciously controlled behaviour). The RH side of your brain also controls movement of the left side of your body. Before you try and roll squeeze your left hand on your paddle – that should activate the RH side of your brain and help reduce the risk of choking.

I found the experience of “choking” pretty scary and very stressful. It was a real relief to discover this wasn’t just me and that I wasn’t losing my roll. This was a well-known and understood phenomenon. And what’s more – I passed my 5* assessment last week. My roll on assessment? It was just fine.

The moral of this story for paddlers? Think about trying these techniques – maybe one will prevent you experiencing choking under pressure!

The moral of this story for coaches? Celebrate every roll you see.  Each roll is a victory, and the product of a lot of hard work, but each one is also a potential trigger to doubt … And think about informing paddlers about choking and how to prevent it.

The moral of this story for assessors? Don’t judge too quickly if someone fails a roll … maybe you are witnessing choking? Maybe suggesting one of these techniques could help trigger automatic behaviour and success? Maybe if you think you have seen choking you might point to this information in your feedback?

Happy paddling to you all, and may all your rolls be effortless (or whichever descriptor you choose)!

You can find further information on choking on the web – if you can’t get the original papers and would like to read them feel free to drop me an email:

A quick search on “choking in sport” will lead you to lots of articles describing what choking is.

The specific research I mention above is at:

The holistic description word technique:

Hand squeezing technique – there’s a great lay summary here: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2009/jul/26/sports-psychology-choking

The original research:

You can find information on Coastal Spirit’s mentoring program (which I highly recommend) here:

And if the psychological aspects of paddling are of interest check this course out:

Tavi Murray


  1. Great blog! I recognise that choking feeling when rolling. That seems to be in the past for me. I like the idea of seeing every role as a victory and I will use that idea. I remember being surprised by every successful role when I was learning it. My role is now very reliable and I am not bothered by the odd swim. I can't remember who said it to me but I use the philosophy that just because a role does not work on one occasion it does not mean it will not work next time.

  2. Thanks Keith and Im glad you liked Tavi's article. Happy rolling ;)

  3. I instruct rolling. My roll is not always perfect, so I work on it. There is also a real case for the potential of poor fundamentals if your roll is failing even occasionally. If you don't consider this, you are in denial. I try to teach my students to look & feel for the three things I consider essential to a bombproof roll,(which, yes, under the right circumstance can need a second or third effort). Start the kayak early, keep the paddle at or near the surface & head out of the water last. This is nothing new, but I see many struggle with their roll, particularly in dynamic waters, once they let one of these essentials slip away. All the best, tOM

  4. Interesting article-I have noticed that the quickest way to lose my roll (such as it is) is to start thinking about it too much ! There is a line in the article that confuses me---"That was perfect,try this, I find it usually breaks a roll.." Was the instructor trying to show how a coach could induce a choke in a student ?

  5. Great article. Feels like it was written for me, as that was exactly what happened to me when I started thinking about my five star assessment. And it wasn't just my roll, suddenly I felt like a complete beginner in many things I normally find easy. Very useful information, I will give your tips a go and will read the articles you linked to. Thanks for sharing!