©Arlene R. Taylor PhD

Watch your thoughts, they become your beliefs.
Watch your beliefs, they become your words.
Watch your words, they become your actions.
Watch your actions, they become your habits.
Watch your habits, they become your character.
—Vince Lombardi

ArleneGmail3 01“Tell me about choking.” The words came from a tall, physically fit young man who now sat slumped in my office. 

“Well,” I replied, “there’s choking when something gets stuck in your throat, choking due to constricted bronchial tubes, choking because of a scary game children sometimes play, choking under pressure, choking . . .”

“Choking under pressure,” Bryan interrupted, with a wave of his hand. “I’ve joined the ranks of Wimbledon’s Jana Novatna and golf’s Van de Velde. Not that I intended to join, you understand.

Silence.

Man of few words, I thought to myself. Aloud I said, “It might help if you described your most recent example of choking under pressure.”

“Game on the line,” Bryan mumbled, addressing someone on the other side of the window pane. “Missed both free throws. Crazy! I’ve sunk 25 baskets in a row—in practice.”

“Experimental findings have associated choking under pressure with four variables:

  • Audience presence
  • Competition
  • Performance-contingent rewards and punishments
  • And ego relevance of the task.”

“All of those apply,” Bryan said, looking at the floor. More silence.

“What were you thinking just before you threw the ball?” I asked.

Bryan shook his head. “Wanted those points desperately. I and knew the whole team was depending on me. Guess I lost my confidence, played scared, and started analyzing what my muscles should do instead of just trusting my skills. It was like being back at the beginning when I first learned how to play.”

“Your explanation is on the money,” I said. “Incapacitated by your own thoughts, you likely exerted too much conscious effort instead of trusting your highly-honed skills. Referred to by some researchers as paradoxical performance effects, choking under pressure can be defined as inferior performance despite striving and incentives for superior performance. Millions have witnessed this phenomenon in the unexpected catastrophes of Olympic trials and in almost any high-stakes sports event¾although the reasons may be worlds apart. In his article “The Art of Failure” (2000), Malcolm Gladwell describes the difference between panic and choking. Panic involves too little thinking and reverting to instinct, while choking represents too much thinking and a loss of practiced instinct. Although most people get nervous at some time or other, not everyone either panics or chokes.”

“Hmm-m,” said Bryan.

“Do you know the difference between implicit and explicit learning and memory?” I asked.

Bryan shook his head.

  • Implicit happens almost automatically and requires comparatively little conscious effort. Walking, riding a bike, and sinking a basket are examples of implicit memory. You just know how to do it based on learned past experience. Sinking 25 baskets in a row uses implicit memory. The Distraction Theory says that pressure creates a situation of divided attention which interferes with single-mindedness. People start to lose concentration, allowing some of their attention to be diverted towards irrelevant stimuli such as worries, social expectations, and anxiety. When you fixate on yourself, trying to avoid mistakes or getting caught up in expectations, implicit learning fails. You lose the natural fluidity of performance and the grace of honed talent.
  • Explicit memory requires a conscious effort to retrieve memories. Remembering your mother’s birthday, what you did for vacation last year, answering questions on a final exam, and your doctor’s appointment next week are examples of explicit memory. The Explicit Monitoring theory says that pressure raises self-consciousness and anxiety about performing correctly, which increases the conscious attention paid to skill processes and their step-by-step control. Under situations of perceived stress—and stress differs for different folks—and embroiled in negative thinking and anxiety, explicit learning overrides and disrupts performances. Failing to sink two baskets in a row may have occurred because explicit memory interfered with implicit memory.

“Ah,” said Bryan, briefly glancing my way. “Tell me more.”

“Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice (2010), explains choking this way:

Experts and novices use two completely different brain systems. Long practice enables experienced performers to encode a skill in implicit memory, and they perform almost without thinking about it. This is called expert-induced amnesia. Novices, on the other hand, wield the explicit system, consciously monitoring what they are doing as they build the neural framework supporting the task. But now suppose an expert were to suddenly find him or herself using the wrong system. It wouldn't matter how good person was because he/she would now be at the mercy of the explicit system. The highly sophisticated skills encoded in the subconscious part of his brain would count for nothing as the person, striving for victory, started using neural pathways last used as a novice. This is the neurophysiology of choking. It is triggered when you get so anxious that you seize conscious control over a task that should be executed automatically.

“You explained that neatly when you said earlier that it was like being back at the beginning when you first learned how to play.’”

“So, is there any way to prevent choking under pressure?” asked Bryan, his nearly black eyes boring into mine.

Choking under pressure doesn’t have to happen,” I replied. “It’s not an inevitable flaw of performance.”

Daniel Gucciardi and James Dimmock, psychologists at the University of Western Australia, studied twenty experienced golfers with handicaps ranging from zero to twelve, analyzing their success under three separate conditions. The best results were obtained when the golfers stopped thinking about the details of their swing or how to position their hips. When they contemplated a generic and vague cue word or phrase (e.g., “Smooth,” “Balanced,” “Enjoy this”), their performance was no longer affected by anxiety. The positive adjectives did not cause the athletes to lose the flow of expert performance or overrule their automatic brain.

I explained how a team of neuroscientists in London used MRI studies to gain insight into choking. They found that as people got excited about potential rewards, activity tended to increase in a subcortical brain region (ventral striatum) that is dense with dopamine neurons. However, as the participants actually began playing the video game (albeit inside a brain scanner), activity in the ventral striatum changed. The brain activity became inversely related to the magnitude of the reward, i.e., larger incentives led to less striatum activity. The decreased activity led to decreased performance.

Loss aversion is a well-documented phenomenon: people feel worse over a loss than they feel good about a gain. For example, the pleasure of winning $1000 is less intense than the pain of losing the same amount. Although there were no actual “losses” in the London experiment (e.g., participants were never punished for failure), the researchers theorized that the act of playing the game led the participants to count chickens that were not yet hatched and to think about wins that had not been achieved. Because of that, the ventral striatum that focuses on rewards showed less activity as the brain worried about possible failures. In fact, the most loss-adverse participants showed the largest drop in performance when the rewards were increased.

“This research suggests that some individuals choke under pressure because they care too much,” I said. “They want to succeed and to win so desperately that they unravel. The activity’s pleasure has vanished. What remains is the fear of failure, of losing, which can trigger choking.”

“I get it,” said Bryan. “So what do I do?”

We discussed steps Bryan could implement to avoid choking under pressure. “

Keep it basic and simple,” I suggested. “Try using the STP antidote as you think and talk to yourself.”

  1. Stay in the moment. Think about what you need to do now—not about what just happened or even about the finish. Breathe slowly and relax your muscles for a moment to help you refocus.
  1. Take control of your mindset and self-talk. Imagine only what you want to do and have happen. When you become aware of a negative thought just note it and move past it immediately and replace it with a positive thought. Tell yourself: “Bryan, you really enjoy this. You are smooth and relaxed. You trust your brain. It’s got this!”
  1. Perform with pleasure. Trust your brain and body and the skills you’ve developed. Remember how much you love what you are doing.

“A big tournament is coming up next month,” Bryan said, as he stood to leave. “I have some work to do between now and then.” He paused at the door. “Thanks.”

My cell phone vibrated into life. “I didn’t do it!” the voice shouted. “No—I mean, I did do it!”

Recognizing Bryan’s distinctive accent I laughed, moved the phone further from my ear, and asked, “Well, which is it? Did you or didn’t you?”

“It’s BOTH!” he shouted. “I used the STP antidote and avoided choking under pressure. We won!”

“Glad to know it worked,” I said, a smile in my voice.

“Big time,” said Bryan. “I stopped thinking about failure. Every time a negative thought crossed my brain I used the STP antidote and replaced it with a positive thought. And guess what else? I’m learning that I can use the STP antidote in other areas of my life, too.” Pause. “Say, Doc, would you like to see a game? Shall I send you a ticket?”

My answer? “Yes and yes!” Bryan had the STP antidote and was going for gold. So can you.

 

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