Researchers, spectators and performers alike are often intrigued, and sometimes shocked, if motivated people perform dramatically worse than usual in important, high-pressure situations. This can happen not only in sports but in almost any domain in which people are specifically motivated to do well, be it music, surgery, academic examinations, or even a driving test.
Choking, or choking under pressure, is a metaphorical expression frequently used in sport settings to describe occasions when severe unexpected decrements occur in performance under anxiety provoking situations. Such occasions potentially can be invoked by the presence of an evaluative audience, the possibility for high reward, competition, or factors unique to each individual choker. Examples of choking in sport tend to be memorable and sometimes sports evolve their own domestic expression for the phenomenon.
There is no agreed definition of what it means to choke. Early definitions suggested that choking is inferior or suboptimal performance in response to high motivation to perform well, but recent researchers have argued that such a definition does not capture the acute, dramatic declines in performance that go beyond merely suboptimal performance. Most examination of choking has derived from empirical studies, which are unable to re-create the factors that cause choking in each individual, so some researchers have highlighted the need for a more idiographic, qualitative approach that is ecologically valid.
Why Does Choking Occur?
It seems likely that choking arises as a stress response associated with very high motivation to perform well. It also has been suggested that a choking event can have a long-term negative psychological impact on performers, leaving them vulnerable to further choking events in the future.
Historically, arousal theories have been used to explain performance decrements in anxiety provoking situations, but these are merely descriptive models, which link arousal or drive with performance. They offer little explanation of the underlying mechanisms that result in performance decrements (or indeed performance peaks). The best known of the theories is probably the Yerkes– Dodson law (better known as inverted-U theory), which suggests that improved performance accompanies increased arousal until intermediate levels of arousal are reached. Further increases in arousal result in performance decrements. Such a model has a number of shortcomings with respect to the phenomenon of choking. For example, the model implies that if arousal becomes too high and performance declines, a performer can regain the previous level of performance merely by reducing arousal. The model also implies that changes in performance level are smooth and gradual as arousal increases (or decreases), which does not explain the acute, dramatic drops in performance that typify choking. To resolve these issues, some researchers have turned to René Thom’s theory of catastrophes, which tries to explain abrupt shifts or bifurcations in behavior (e.g., landslides, bridge collapses, and even capsized ships) that are associated with relatively small, continuous changes in contributing factors. In particular, the researchers have examined cusp catastrophes to elucidate how physiological arousal and cognitive anxiety (worry) interact to cause high or low levels of performance in sport. The model suggests that high cognitive anxiety couples with increasing physiological arousal to cause abrupt catastrophic drops in performance or chokes.
A shift in emphasis has seen attention theories exploited to better understand the cognitive mechanisms that underlie the effects of performance pressure on performance. These theories propose that under anxiety-provoking conditions there may be a disruptive reallocation of attention, which subsequently triggers performance decrements. To a certain extent this approach is underpinned by cue utilization theory, which suggests that changes in attentional focus caused by performance pressure influence the degree to which an individual is able to process task-relevant information but not task-irrelevant information. Two current models that exploit attention theories propose that performance can be disrupted because attention either becomes distracted away from important aspects of performance or because attention becomes overly attracted to skill-focused aspects of performance.
Distraction models propose that performance pressure causes a shift in attention, which results in unnecessary processing of information irrelevant to performance of the task, such as worry and self-doubt. Working memory is thought to support the storage and active maintenance of information over short durations and, as a consequence, to be involved in processing information related to task performance. Processing additional irrelevant information is therefore likely to decrease the attention resources available to working memory and subsequently compromise its ability to process task-relevant information that is crucial for effective performance.
One particular theory, which offers insight to how distraction mediates the relationship between anxiety and cognition in sport (although it was not developed specifically for sport) is attentional control theory (ACT). ACT is an extension of processing efficiency theory (PET), proposed by Michael Eysenck and his colleagues. ACT proposes that anxiety reduces goal-directed focus but increases stimulus-driven focus, allowing attention to more easily be distracted to threat-related stimuli and the processing of threat-related stimuli to be less easily inhibited. Unnecessary processing of threat related internal stimuli like worry about the consequences of performance failure or external stimuli like irrelevant environmental factors can harm performance, but the theory proposes that performance effectiveness can be preserved by increasing task-related effort in order to augment the processing resources dedicated to the task. Consequently, anxiety may not always reduce the quality of performance.
To a certain extent, this theory seems feasible. For example, there is no doubt that most soccer players become highly anxious before a penalty shootout at the World Cup. Their attention is distracted to threatening internal stimuli, such as “What will the press say if I miss?” or to threatening external stimuli, such as sudden realization that the goal is smaller than they recall (or the goalkeeper taller). Fewer resources are thus available to allocate to the task at hand and the probability of failed performance increases dramatically. But not all players do fail in penalty shootouts. Some players seem to counteract the effects of pressure on their penalty-taking performance with intense effort. Others appear unable to compensate; they choke, as the newspapers will later claim.
A problem with distraction theories, however, is that evidence from research on nonmotor, cognitive tasks such as mathematics problems, suggests that those tasks that rely heavily on working memory are most affected by worry associated with pressure. Most examples of choking in sport involve performance of well-practiced skills that do not rely heavily on working memory because they are procedural and run automatically. Consequently, the performance of skills in sport should be relatively immune to depleted working memory resources. A second explanatory model has therefore emerged, which suggests that pressure heightens self-consciousness about performing successfully, causing attention to become skill focused. Theories that take this approach have a wide variety of nomenclature that includes self focus theory, explicit monitoring theory, conscious processing hypothesis, the constrained action hypothesis, and the theory of reinvestment.
Skill-focused models intimate that well-practiced skills in sport (and in other movement-related domains) can be disrupted not by depletion of working memory resources but by the misappropriation of spare working memory resources to consciously control performance that is best left to run automatically. In order to ensure that performance is effective, the performer explicitly tries to control the process of skill execution, which disrupts or inhibits automatic control processes and usually results in poor performance. Roy Baumeister probably described this best when he simply argued that consciousness does not have access to enough of the task-relevant knowledge needed to run automated skills effectively.
Some of the best evidence for the model comes from studies that have shown that expert performers tend to be able to preserve the high quality of their performance when carrying out a concurrent task (such as tone recognition) that takes attention away from execution of the skill. Well-practiced skills require minimal working memory resources for effective performance, leaving resources spare for the concurrent task. Skilled performers, however, tend to display disrupted performance when carrying out a concurrent task that requires attention to execution of the skills (e.g., a task that requires indication of the position of the bat when a tone sounds). Evidence from studies, using the same or similar paradigms, shows that under pressure skilled performers also become more accurate at the secondary task (e.g., indicating the position of the bat when the tone sounded), indicating that pressure causes increased skill focus.
It has been argued that distraction models and skill-focus models lead to opposing predictions, but it is unlikely that the models are independent. A shift in attention under pressure, which disrupts automaticity by unnecessary processing of declarative knowledge that is redundant for performance, appears to encompass both distraction and skill-focus models.
Personality and Performance Under Pressure
Some performers may be more susceptible to choking than others. Specific dispositional traits (relatively stable personality characteristics) may predispose performers to choking. Attentional control theory, for example, suggests that high trait anxious individuals are more likely than low trait anxious individuals to display disrupted performance under pressure, although these findings are confined to test-anxiety situations, rather than performance in sport. It has been suggested that high levels of chronic anxiety might not even be relevant in sport as these relatively public settings may not attract individuals with such traits.
One personality trait associated with skill focus theories is self-consciousness. It has been claimed that people who are generally high in self-consciousness are likely to perform better under pressure than people who are low in self-consciousness, because they are accustomed to performing with the high levels of self-focus that pressure causes. It is unclear whether this proposal is correct, given that some evidence shows that people generally high in self-consciousness are more likely to choke than people low in self-consciousness. The theory of reinvestment argues that not only self-consciousness but also the inclination to consciously control performance is subject to individual differences. Psychometric measures of a general disposition for reinvestment, or for movement specific reinvestment, have been developed. Both make reference to personality traits that include self-consciousness, rumination, and even slips of action, and both show that the performance of people who score high on such metrics is generally more negatively influenced by pressure than the performance of people who score low on such metrics.
Protecting Performance Under Pressure
Techniques that divert attention away from conscious control, perhaps to an external rather than an internal focus, or that improve the ability of the performer to maintain the correct focus of attention, may help to prevent choking. Methods that train control of attention, such as emotion control training or hypoegoic self-regulation (in which an individual learns deliberately to relinquish conscious control of behavior), potentially can help performers maintain the fluid automaticity of their performance under pressure. Alternatively, training that acclimatizes performers to heightened self-consciousness may inoculate them against pressure. Ritualized behaviors or routines may swamp working memory and prevent skill focus, as may concurrent secondary tasks. There is even evidence that performing faster than usual when under pressure may help performers to avoid skill focus, although as anyone who has ever tried this approach will attest, it is not so simple in the heat of battle. A more enduring approach may be to use implicit motor learning techniques to curtail construction of a task-relevant declarative knowledge base. The integrity of automatic control processes should be more secure if task-relevant declarative knowledge cannot be extracted from long-term memory for conscious control purposes.
Research directly or indirectly related to choking has expanded considerably over the past three decades. Investigation has shifted from a passive to a more active approach, progressing from qualitative discussion about entertaining anecdotal reports of performance failure under pressure to concrete empirical research. As long as observers continue to be intrigued and shocked when motivated people perform their skills dramatically worse than usual when the stakes are high, the research interest is likely to continue.
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