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

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

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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