Many important moments in life require individuals to perform their best under pressure. Placement exams, game-winning free throws, live performances, and important speeches may all have implications for person’s future path like whether a person gets into college, makes the cut in a big tournament, receives a scholarship, or earns a promotion.
Leading researcher on the topic, Sian Beilock, describes choking as subpar performance outcomes given a person’s skill level when the pressure is high. For example, a professional basketball player missing free throws when they usually demonstrate a high free throw percentage in practices and other games. Baumeister and Showers (1986, p. 361) describe this occurrence as “inferior performance despite striving and incentives for superior performance.” In this description, the situation not only has to be demanding, but the performer has to care about the result. A professional golfer who you might expect to excel at mini golf may not care about their score; therefore, a bad putt would not indicate a choke. However, the importance of choking is not limited to athletic situations. Beilock has found these choking patterns to be present in school or workplace settings as well when demands to perform are high and the student or employee does not perform up to expectations.
The theories to explain choking behavior are divided by whether we choke due to the physiological changes resulting from the stressors (e.g. mental arousal, increased heart rate, etc.) or our maladaptive attempts to alleviate our stress (e.g. we start focusing on the wrong things).
“Drive Theory:” Cusp Catastrophe Model.
(Beilock & Gray, 2007)
It is well-established that too little “arousal” results in suboptimal performance. Think of a time you had barely anything to do at work – How long did it take you to get something small accomplished? Probably a lot longer than it would take you on a busier day. But we also know that too much arousal is harmful as well. When you’re too busy at work, you struggle to get anything done because there’s too much stress in the way. This leaves an “optimal zone of functioning,” which occurs right before a quick drop in performance. Being even slightly past that optimal zone puts you right on the cusp of experiencing a catastrophic “choke.”
Theories that address what the athlete is thinking about and focusing on during a choke are referred to as attentional theories.
Processing Efficiency Theory (PET).
(Eysenck & Calvo, 1992)
When you are in a high-pressure situation, you’re probably having a lot of thoughts (“What if I fail/succeed?”), and those thoughts take up space in your working memory. With a finite amount of space in our working memory, something has got to give. Too many thoughts lead to processing inefficiency. The performer needs to sacrifice mental resources dedicated to performing the task and experience a decline in performance.
Explicit Monitoring Hypothesis (EMH).
(Beilock & Carr, 2001)
Long ago, Fitts and Posner (1967) demonstrated that experts in a task have developed that skill to the point of automaticity, characterized by the lack of conscious processing during task execution. They do not require the use of their working memory to complete the task, but rather their procedural, implicit memory system. Since experts do not use their working memory to complete a task in the first place, then PET is probably not the cause of their choking, as their working memory has more free space.
EMH states that experts become self-conscious in high-pressure situations and attempt to deal with it by thinking explicitly about the task. Explicit focus includes rule-based thoughts (e.g. “keep the arm straight, rotate the shoulders”) and involve consciously monitoring how the skill execution feels. Ironically, this coping strategy is commonly encouraged by coaches who say, “just focus on the stroke,” or “make sure you follow-through on this shot.” By calling attention to the imminent task, athletes will focus on the parts of their movements they usually do not think about and process their actions through their working memory, just as a beginner would. Novice performers are able to maintain performance under highly self-conscious and self-focusing conditions because this systematic, rule-based thinking is common when one is first learning a task (Masters, 1992).
Beginner performers think explicitly about their skill execution because they are learning a new task, so adding extra thoughts or a second task can overwhelm their working memory and lead to a drop in performance. On the other hand, experts may do well in this same condition because they do not need to use their working memory to execute the skill, so their mental resources are free to use to complete an unrelated task. But once that unrelated task becomes stress-inducing, an expert is in danger of focusing too hard on the parts of their skill (shot, swing, voice, body movements) that normally come naturally. This is commonly understood as “forcing it,” and can lead to a true choke.
What can you do about it? Keep an eye out for an upcoming post on how to deal with choking under pressure and contact Carolina Performance providers today!
Carolina Performance Intern
Master’s Student in Kinesiology at UNC-Greensboro
Correspondence can be directed to: firstname.lastname@example.org