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It happens to me all the time, especially on rhythm games, but also on other action and fighting games where flawless performance is crucial.

I've practiced a very tough level several dozen times, and I'm getting really close to finish it flawlessly (like full combo, or something like that). And then when I start my perfect run push, as I get closer to finishing the level, at the very end I choke and I end up doing some stupid mistake I wouldn't do otherwise. I can't say how many times I've seen a result screen like this:


On the other hand, if I make a mistake early on the level, I know I'm not going to finish it perfectly, so I can flawlessly clear the later part of the level.

I think it has something to do with unconscious movement. If I'm doing the level unconsciously, probably even thinking about something else, I do it pretty well; but when my brain senses I'm close to finally doing a perfect run, I get nervous, and my consciousness, who sucks at playing games, takes over and I end up making really stupid mistakes.

In the end, when I actually flawlessly finish the level, it is more because I managed to somewhat finish the game consciously, rather than because I actually practiced. With levels with really tough endings, I can do more than a few hundred runs and never actually get to finish them, just because I get nervous at the very end.

How can I stop choking when playing games?

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@fbueckert However, I feel like it's something that is extremely relevant to gamers, especially professional gamers and speedrunners. Isn't it possible that we could give some constructive advice from our own experiences? – Mana Feb 20 '13 at 5:02
@Mana That's where inviting to Arqade Chat comes in. – user9983 Feb 20 '13 at 5:04
I think our advice consists of drinking. A lot. – Frank Feb 20 '13 at 5:06
If you can pause in the middle of a song, I'd do that when you feel yourself getting nervous. It helped me with Elite Beat Agents. It's a trade off though, you might shake your nerves but you might also lose your groove. – walrus helmet Feb 20 '13 at 6:16
I can't help but think there's a better term than "choking". – Raven Dreamer Feb 20 '13 at 21:13
up vote 19 down vote accepted

You are experiencing choking — you are playing the game relying on subconcious timing and movements, which totally break down once you become sufficiently self-aware that, god damn it, you've tried this segment thirty times already and finally I made it oh god oh god no dammit let's try again uh let's try again better wtf why can't I even make the first jump now!

As the article explains, there are really two types of learning: implicit ("muscle memory") and explicit ("study"). These processes are different, rely on different portions of the brain and are independent of each other. Stress can, however, inhibit the basal ganglia - the brain part responsible for implicit learning and short term memory. When that happens, you've choked. It's not a matter of being good or bad, expert or newbie — actually, it only happens to those sufficiently experienced.

I would suggest doing a context switch whenever you feel like this, if possible. Go have a snack, drink something, call a timeout, watch a video on youtube then come back to the task. This should help resetting your mind, relaxing a bit and losing a little bit of the excess self-awareness that is the issue to begin with.

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That is an extremely good article. At least I now know that this has a name: "choking", that it is different from panicking, and that it happens to everybody. As a secondary note, googling "how to cope with choking" yields lots of unhelpful results ^^ – Panda Pajama Feb 20 '13 at 11:32
It's not like there IS a bullet-proof way to deal with this. Actively fighting stress only brings you more stress. – badp Feb 20 '13 at 18:40
This is one of the good answers explaining what almost any gamer goes through. Thanks and +1. – ヴァイシャリ Feb 21 '13 at 3:15

You may not be open to it, but I have a suggestion for learning not to do this.

Whenever you're doing well and start to get excited/panicky/nervous and you're thinking about that perfect score rather than just playing with your normal focus, quit right then and there. Cut it off as quickly as possible. This should help avoid any sort of adrenaline dependence as well as prevent you from "practising wrong". For any sort of practice you want to maximize time spent practising correctly and minimize time spent practising incorrectly to better train your brain and muscles.

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This sounds interesting. Have you tried it yourself? – Panda Pajama Feb 21 '13 at 2:40
@PandaPajama Not with gaming, but I do it for piano and guitar. – Matthew Read Feb 21 '13 at 13:54
^^ Weird, I heard thats a bad way to learn music because you end up just learning the beginning part by playing it so many more times than the end.... but if it works for you... – djsmiley2k Feb 22 '13 at 13:16
@djsmiley2k This has nothing to do with playing the beginning part more than the end (though that might be the case for a non-customizable game). In fact if you're trying to learn the end of something, you shouldn't start from the beginning. The best way to learn is in patches; see my answer to – Matthew Read Feb 28 '13 at 22:32

I used to choke on games. I don't play rhythm games because I suck at them, but the way I found to stop choking on the types of games I do play is music.

I'd play a loud heavy track, something I'm familiar with, and then try and "zone out" of the game. I'll be playing but almost paying no attention to what I'm actually doing. I'm almost watching my own body play the game without me actively taking part in what I'm doing.

It's especially awesome in FPS's when I end up taking shots and hitting people I didn't even consciously notice, but my subconscious which is controlling the game for me has already killed them. I think I ended up gaming like this by having to play and work at the same time for a year or so in a lan gaming centre. It took awhile before this "happened". May not be worth trying if you enjoy being deeply ingrained into your games.

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I think playing music for rhythm games, might screw it up completely :p. But other then that I agree that music does help. At times i'm more focussed on the music then on the game, and that is when the magic happens of my subconscious and reflexes kicking in and owning everything. – Lyrion Feb 20 '13 at 13:17

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