By Carla-Dyann Brown & Dr. Bob Neff, Mental Trainers®

The 2011 NBA Finals were an exciting victory for some, and a devastating defeat for others.  Although the actions of many were questioned and reviewed, one of the most notable athletes accused of performing at sub-par levels during the NBA Finals was Miami Heat star, LeBron James. Why did LeBron choke and Mavs star Dirk Nowizki shine? We have an answer.

Take a look at the following statements from LeBron and Dirk prior to pivotal game 5 of the NBA Finals. They each give us a glimpse inside the minds of these 2 great athletes, and suggest

Who Was More Mentally Tough?

reasons why they performed so differently when it mattered the most – in fourth quarters. Here’s LeBron’s pregame statement, “It’s a big game, probably the biggest game of my life… I’ve been dreaming about

[this] my whole life” (Golliver, 2011). And here’s Dirk’s, “Don’t get me wrong, this is obviously a pivotal game, but we’re staying focused on our strategy. If we execute, the result will take care of itself” (, 2011).

When athletes are expected to achieve and perform at their highest levels, their execution often falters.  Maximizing the importance of an event, especially in front of a large audience, is rarely an effective athlete strategy. According to Bakhshayesh, Nia, and Neisi (2010), when athletes escalate expectations, stress and anxiety can increase pressure, and “choking” is often the result.  The term “choking” describes an athlete’s declining performance in high or extreme pressure situations when they otherwise would have performed well. If mental strategies are not applied to these highly charged competitive situations, cognitive, motor, and emotional skills often deteriorate (Markman, Maddox, & Worthy, 2006).

So moving forward then, what is the best way for LeBron (and you!) to maintain or increase performance during highly charged competitive situations?

Your Specific “Zone of Optimal Functioning”

Overstimulation due to high levels of arousal or anxiety is a common cause of poor performance.  When arousal levels are too low, performers underachieve.  Increased arousal can cause performance levels to peak.  However, if arousal continues to increase beyond that optimal level, performance begins to deteriorate (Schmidt & Wrisberg, 2008).  This said, discover the emotions and level of excitement that causes your optimal performance.  Learn what it feels like and share that knowledge with your coach and teammates.  Define, declare, and perform in your optimal arousal level.

Develop Mistake Amnesia

What can be done about previous missed shots or mistakes?  Nothing.  However, dwelling on past mistakes can reduce self-confidence, increase frustration, and increase anger.  Mistake Amnesia describes an athlete’s ability to put mistakes into short-term memory and then forget about them.  This runs counter to a recent sport psychology article that suggested LeBron needs to relive his mistakes over and over until the emotion dissipates (Adelson, 2011). We totally disagree. Rather than spending time dwelling on past mistakes, LeBron needs to learn from them and move on.  He could really benefit from improving his ability to be in the moment toward the end of games.  Being in the moment will allow him to do what needs to be done at that time, keeping thoughts on present goals, present attempts, and present thoughts (Mental Training Inc, 2010).

Practice Visualizing

Visualize plays, shots taken and goals scored.  Visualize noise from the crowd.  Visualize yourself facing your opponents and breaking away from them.  Using mental pictures, see yourself performing your best and doing the things you enjoy doing.  Using visualization to increase performance will have more benefit than dwelling on missed opportunities or poor performances.  Visualization, or mental imagery is a type of psychological skill that can produce ideal situations that serve cognitive, motivational, and rehabilitative purposes (Cumming, Hall, & Shambrook, 2004). Research has shown that imagery can be an effective strategy to enhance athletic performance (Gregg & Hall, 2005; Short & Short, 2005, Plessinger, 2000).

Step Back and Breathe

Quick plays, quick transitions, and fast breaks can increase anxiety and decrease execution.  Stepping back to find a few seconds to breathe deeply will help athletes become more aware of their thoughts, which should be positive and present. Athletes can slow down, gain control of their emotions, and decrease muscle tension (Mental Training Inc, 2010).  Taking a few deep breaths to improve perceptions can be beneficial in re-establishing a present focus on strategy and performance.

Young, old, professional or weekend warrior – pressure is usually a part of competition. However, there are mental skills we can learn to use to reduce it. Here’s a piece by CBS recorded just before Game 5 of the NBA Finals: Dr. Bob is interviewed in it about Dirk’s stats and on the topic of how Dirk raises his level to perform his best when it matters the most. Hopefully LeBron won’t see it – Go Mavs!

Mental Training, Inc.
Dallas, Texas

Carla-Dyann Brown is an MTI Mental Trainer® and sport psychology doctoral student. Dr. Bob Neff is a former professional tennis player and the Chairman of Dallas-based Mental Training, Inc., a ClubCorp National Strategic Partner.

 MTI’s performance enhancement services include in-person and online mental training for athletes and performers of all age and experience levels. There are substantial discounts for ClubCorp Members. Details are at the Members-Only Mental Training Portal:


Adelson, E.  (2011, June 13).  Can Lebron transfer from choker to champ?: A sport psychologist has a game plan.  The Post Game.  Retrieved from

Bakhshayesh, S., Nia, P., & Neisi, A.  (2010).  Impact of self- consciousness on choking under pressure in basketball players.  Studies in Physical Culture and Tourism, 17(2), 139 – 143.

Cumming, J., Hall, C., & Shambrook, S.  (2004).  The influence of an imagery workshop on athlete’s use of imagery.  Athletic Insight, 6(1), 52 – 73.

Golliver, B.  (2011, June 9).  LeBron James ready for the biggest game of his life.  CBS Sports.  Retrieved from

Marksman, A., Maddox, W., & Worthy,D.  (2006).  Choking and excelling.  Psychological Science, 17(11), 944 – 948.

Mental Training, Inc.  (2010).  Breath Control.  Retrieved from

Plessinger, A,  (2000).  The effects of mental imagery on athletic performance.  Retrieved from (2011).  Dirk Nowizki quotes. Retrieved from