Choking under pressure – breaking it down
By: Neha Malhotra
‘Choking under pressure’ is a phenomenon that’s all too familiar for many sportspeople. A name that became synonymous with ‘choking’ is that of golfer Greg Norman a.k.a. The Great White Shark, who lost the 1996 Augusta Masters to Nick Faldo despite having a seemingly unassailable six stroke lead entering the final round.
In rugby, Don Fox is infamous for the missed penalty kick which cost his Wakefield Trinity side the 1968 Challenge Cup final against Leeds.
Skill acquisition researchers define ‘choking’ as poor performance in pressure situations when the athlete has the motivation and capability of performing well1.
Don Fox had already been voted the man of the match and was more than capable of taking the simple penalty from the middle of the posts. He was clearly motivated to win the Challenge Cup – one of rugby league’s most coveted prizes – for his team.
So why did he – like so many other elite athletes before and since – choke at the crucial moment?
Sport psychology researchers have suggested that a possible explanation for choking is a shift in the performer’s attention. On the one hand, pressure may cause an athlete to be distracted away from the task at hand.
For example, a rugby player preparing to take a title-deciding penalty kick might start worrying about what the coach might say if she misses, or how she might let her team mates down, instead of focusing on the sweet spot of the ball.
On the other hand, it is possible that the athlete’s attention shifts inwards towards the skill-focused aspects of performance.
A rugby player who feels the pressure of a lineout in the last few minutes of a game might consciously process information related to movements to ensure that their hips and chest are up, their chin’s off their chest, and their weight is on the balls of their feet.
But for an experienced player who is accustomed to performing this action automatically, reliance on these explicit rules might disrupt normally automatic movements (a phenomenon that has been labelled as ‘reinvestment’2).
In other words, ‘overthinking’ movements might result in poor performance.
By understanding what causes choking in athletes we can begin to develop more targeted training interventions. Sport psychology researchers have recommended an array of solutions to the choking problem.
One recommendation is the adoption of pre-performance routines that involve focusing on an external point (ball or the target) to prevent athletes from being distracted by worrying thoughts or self-focusing on their movements.
Alternatively, individuals could practise in simulated pressure situations, learn hypoegoic self-regulation (give up conscious control over behaviour) or learn skills with minimal verbal knowledge of how it is performed (implicit motor learning) to reduce self-focus under pressure.
In upcoming blogs, we’ll explore a few of these training interventions in greater depth.
- Baumeister RF, Showers CJ. A review of paradoxical performance effects: Choking under pressure in sports and mental tests. European Journal of Social Psychology. 1986;16(4):361-383.
- Masters RSW, Maxwell JP. The theory of reinvestment. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 2008;1(2):160-183.
Dr Neha Malhotra is a researcher whose focus is on motor skill acquisition in sporting, medical and other professional (e.g., driving) contexts.
She is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Nanyang Technological University and an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Waikato, New Zealand.
You can follow her @Nayhamal on twitter.