The desire to perform as well as possible in situations with a high degree of (personally felt) importance is thought to create performance pressure. Paradoxically, despite the fact that performance pressure often results from aspirations to function at one’s best, pressure-packed situations are where major performance failures may be most visible. The term choking under pressure has been used to describe this phenomenon. Choking is defined as performing more poorly than expected given one’s skill level and is thought to occur across many diverse task domains where incentives for optimal performance are at a maximum. Two of the most common examples of situations in which choking under pressure can occur are sport competitions and exams or tests.
Many different theories have been put forth to explain how and why choking under pressure occurs with the ultimate goal of developing interventions and training methods to prevent it. These theories can be roughly divided into three categories: drive theories, biomechanical theories, and attentional theories. Drive theories, which are primarily descriptive in nature, propose that there is an optimal level of physiological arousal for each skill that we perform. Biomechanical theories provide hypotheses about how the kinematics and motor control strategies involved in skill execution (e.g., control of the velocity of the racquet head in a tennis serve) change in response to pressure. Finally, attentional theories seek to describe the cognitive processes governing pressure-induced failure—how pressure changes the attentional mechanisms and memory structures supporting performance.
The remainder of this entry focuses on the major attentional theories.
Distraction theory is one of the primary attentional theories of choking under pressure. This theory assumes that every performer has a limited amount of information processing capacity that can be devoted to the execution of one’s skill. Information processing involves multiple resources, including perception, working memory, and attention. Successful skill execution requires accurate perception of objects in environment such as judging the speed at which a ball is approaching or discriminating between opponents and teammates on a basketball court. Working memory is a short-term memory system that maintains, in an active state, a limited amount of information with immediate relevance to the task at hand (e.g., a phone number you are about to dial) while preventing distractions from the environment and irrelevant thoughts. Attention is a resource that allows us to enhance the processing of relevant objects or locations in our environment (analogous to the way in which a spotlight allows one to see more clearly in small areas). Resource allocation models of human performance typically assume that each of these resources is capacity limited.
As an example of these information processing capacity limits in sport, consider an attacker in soccer processing the locations of opponents and teammates on a pitch. In this situation, there are only a limited number of players that the attacker can focus attention on in a given instant and there are only limited number of player locations that can be held in working memory. Therefore, anything else in the performer’s environment that uses processing resources, such as a fan drawing the player’s attention by yelling an insult, may require that resources are taken away from skill execution, which can lead to degraded performance (e.g., the attacker passes the ball to an opponent). In this example, player locations are an example of task-relevant information, an information source needed for successful skill execution, while the words spoken by the fan are an example of task irrelevant information, a source that does not aid skill execution.
According to distraction theory, the introduction of performance pressure creates additional sources of task-irrelevant information that could potentially draw processing resources away from skill execution. These information sources primarily come in the form of negative thoughts or worries about the outcome of the action being performed and its potential consequences. Examples of such worries could include losing a large monetary prize, being booed by fans, letting down one’s teammates, or failing a class in school. These negative thoughts are hypothesized to sap both working memory (as the performer plays out the disastrous outcomes in their mind) and attentional resources (as the performer’s attention is shifted from the external environments to these internal thoughts). Another way to conceptualize this effect is that pressure serves to change a single task situation where the performer is only required to execute one particular skill into a multitasking situation in which the performer must do two things at once. In sum, in distraction theory, performance pressure serves to distract the performer and draw processing resources away from the task at hand. As described below, this account is the polar opposite to explicit monitoring theory, which proposes that pressure serves to increase the amount of attention and working memory resources devoted to skill execution.
Processing Efficiency Theory
Does the distraction created by the negative thoughts and worries always lead to performance failure? A related theory, called processing efficiency theory, suggests this might not always be the case. Similar to distraction theory, processing efficiency theory proposes that pressure serves to draw processing resources away from task-relevant information; however, it further proposes that decreases in resources available to support skill execution can be partially or fully compensated for by an increase in the effort devoted to the task. Therefore, the main outcome predicted by processing efficiency theory is that skill efficiency (defined as the ratio of performance to the amount of effort exerted) will decrease under pressure. The extent to which associated declines in performance also occur will depend on how much additional effort is exerted by the performer. In any case, both theories propose the same mechanism for the effects of pressure with the difference between them being the degree to which performance is affected in the end.
Because it is based on the assumption that information processing capacity is limited, a strong prediction made by distraction theory is that pressure-induced performance failures will be greatest for skills that normally in nonpressure situations require a large amount of working memory and attentional resources. When a task has very low processing demands, it follows that a performer will have more available capacity, that is, will have more working memory and attention resources available for handling task-irrelevant information, as compared to a skill with high processing demands. Therefore, when a low demand skill is performed under pressure, it is less likely that the additional resources required to process distracting thoughts and worries will cause an overloading of processing capacity. Instead, it is possible that the performer will be able to successfully process both task-relevant and task-irrelevant information. This prediction has received strong support from research involving academic test anxiety. For example, it has been demonstrated that individuals who become highly anxious during test situations, and consequently perform at a suboptimal level, often divide their attention between task-relevant and task-irrelevant thoughts more so than those who do not become overly anxious in high pressure situations. However, suboptimal performance only appears to occur for test problems with high working memory demands like a difficult math problem, while performance for low-demand problems is relatively unaffected.
Thus, there is evidence that pressure can compromise working memory resources, causing failure in tasks that rely heavily on this system. But, not all tasks do rely heavily on working memory. Specifically, the types of high-level motor skills that have been the subject of the majority of choking research in sport (well-learned golf putting, baseball batting, soccer dribbling) are thought to become proceduralized (unconscious, automatic) with practice. Proceduralized skills do not require constant online attentional control and are in fact thought to run largely outside of working memory. Such skills, then, should be relatively robust to conditions that consume working memory resources as distraction theory proposes. However, these types of skills may be sensitive to other attention induced disruptions under pressure. A second class of theories, generally known as explicit monitoring theories, has been used to explain such failures.
Explicit Monitoring Theories
Explicit monitoring theories suggest that pressure situations raise self-consciousness and anxiety about performing correctly. This focus on the self is thought to prompt individuals to turn their attention inward on the specific processes of performance in an attempt to exert more explicit monitoring and control than would be applied in a nonpressure situation. Explicit attention to step-by-step skill processes and procedures is thought to disrupt well-learned or proceduralized performance processes that normally run largely outside of conscious awareness. This proposal is based on the assumption that the processing demands for complex motor skills change systematically during skill acquisition.
For example, consider a golfer attempting to make a putt. A performer relatively new to the sport is likely to have been given a lot of explicit instructions about how to putt effectively (e.g., keep head down, use a smooth backstroke, keep your eye on the ball, etc.). Executing a skill based on these types of instructions is assumed to require a large amount of working memory (the golfer must actively hold in working memory all these instructions and the order they should be executed) and attentional resources (the golfer must focus attention on the position of the head, hands, etc. to determine consistency with the instructions). Through extensive practice, it is assumed these instructions become internalized (or proceduralized) so that expert performance is guided by a set of motor programs, and procedures, once initiated, can run without the need for working memory or attention. How to perform the skill is no longer held actively in working memory but rather it is stored in muscle memory. And the performer no longer needs to consciously monitor the position of the body by focusing attention because the execution of movement is now controlled by unconscious, automatic processes. Instead, more attentional and working memory capacity can be devoted to processing external or strategic information.
In explicit monitoring theory, it is assumed that not only is attention to the execution of a complex motor skill not required, but also that it can be harmful for performance if it does occur. It is argued that directing one’s attention to a well-learned skill effectively serves to disrupt the highly efficient and automatic motor procedures developed through practice. Instead, if skill execution is controlled consciously in a step-by-step manner using a large amount of attentional and working memory resources, performance becomes slow, nonfluent and error prone, outcomes typical of novice performance. Evidence for explicit monitoring theory is provided by dual-task experiments, which require a performer to execute a skill— such as putting or batting—while simultaneously performing a secondary task designed to reorient attention toward skill execution (judging the angle of the putter head or direction of bat movement) or away from skill execution (judging the pitch of an irrelevant sound). Consistent with explicit monitoring theory, it is typically found that expert performance suffers for tasks that direct attention to skill execution and is relatively unaffected by tasks that direct attention away from it. Also consistent with the theory, novice performers typically show the reverse pattern where performance is harmed by irrelevant dual tasks and relatively unaffected (or in some cases actually improved) by skill-focused dual tasks.
One type of explicit monitoring theory, called reinvestment theory, suggests that the specific mechanism governing explicit monitoring is dechunking. Pressure-induced attention to execution causes an integrated or proceduralized control structure that normally runs off without interruptions to be broken back down into a sequence of smaller, independent units—similar to how the performance was organized early in learning. Once dechunked, each unit must be activated and run separately. Not only does this process slow performance, it creates an opportunity for error at each transition between units that was not present in the integrated control structure.
Explicit Monitoring and Distraction Theories Compared
Explicit monitoring and distraction theories essentially make opposite predictions regarding how pressure exerts its impact. While distraction theories suggest that pressure shifts needed attention away from execution, explicit monitoring theories suggest that pressure shifts too much attention to skill execution processes. Can both theories be correct? One possibility is that performance pressure creates two effects that alter how attention is allocated to execution: (1) Pressure induces worries about the situation and its consequences, thereby reducing working memory capacity available for performance—as distraction theories would propose; and (2) at the same time, pressure prompts individuals to attempt to control execution in order to ensure optimal performance—in line with explicit monitoring theories. This suggests that how a skill fails is dependent on performance representation and implementation. That is, skills that demand working memory will fail when pressure consumes the resources necessary for performance, while proceduralized skills that run largely outside of working memory will fail when pressure-induced attention brings such processes back into conscious awareness. Therefore, it is perhaps better to think of these two theories of pressure-induced failures of performance as complementary rather than competing.
It is important to note that it does not seem to be merely a cognitive versus motor distinction that predicts how a skill will fail under pressure. That is, just because one is performing an academically based, cognitive task does not mean this task will show signs of failure via pressure-induced distraction. And, likewise, sports skills do not necessarily fail via pressure-induced explicit monitoring. Rather, it appears to be the manner in which skills utilize on-line attentional resources that dictates how they will fail (though often, this is related to skill domain). Thus, sports skills that make heavy demands on working memory, such as strategizing, problem solving, and decision making (skills that involve considering multiple options simultaneously and updating information in real time), will likely fail as a result of pressure-induced working memory consumption—similar to a working-memory-dependent academic task. In contrast, motor skills that run largely outside of working memory—for instance, a highly practiced golf putt or baseball swing—will fail when pressure-induced attention disrupts automated control processes.
Explicit monitoring and distraction theories have very different implications for how to prevent choking under pressure. According to explicit monitoring theory, choking is best prevented by not allowing a performer to turn attention inward and explicitly control movements. Two promising interventions for achieving this end have been identified. First, it has been shown that allowing a performer to become accustomed to the desire to turn attention inward during practice (through the use of videotaping or some other means of evaluation that tends to induce self-consciousness) can help prevent choking from occurring during a subsequent competition. A more radical solution, based on the reinvestment theory described above, is to change the way a performer acquires a skill: If the performer acquires less knowledge about how to explicitly control a skill (e.g., a golfer is not given instructions about where to place the feet, hands, etc.), it is less likely he or she will switch to this control mode under pressure. Indeed, research evidence suggests that skills acquired implicitly, as in learning by doing as opposed to following instructions, are less prone to choking under pressure.
The primary means for remedying pressure-induced failure, according to distraction theory, is to increase the amount of processing resources devoted to task-relevant information when a performer is placed in a high pressure situation. This could be achieved in different ways. First, as discussed above with reference to processing efficiency theory, it is theoretically possible to reduce (or eliminate) the effects of pressure on performance by increasing effort. Studies that incorporated effort measurement under pressure have shown that this does indeed occur for many performers, suggesting that learning to put more effort into one’s skill can be an effective means of handling pressure. An alternative remedy is to reduce the level of processing demands required for the task-irrelevant worries and negative thoughts that can occur under pressure. Research has shown that this can be achieved by having the performer explicitly verbalize (or write down) the negative thoughts immediately prior to performing the high-pressure skill.
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