His first words were, “Do you know about choking?” The question came from a physically fit young male who sat slumped on my office stool.
Smiling, I replied, “Well, there’s choking that involves something getting stuck in one’s throat, and choking that describes failure under pressure, and choking due to constricted bronchial tubes, and . . .”
“Failure 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 wanted to join,” he added.
Experimental findings have associated “choking under pressure” with four pressure variables: audience presence, competition, performance-contingent rewards and punishments, and ego relevance of the task. I explained these variables to Bryan and suggested he describe his most recent episode.
“The game was on the line. I missed both free throws. It’s crazy! I’ve sunk 25 baskets in a row—in practice.”
“What were you thinking just before you threw the ball?” I asked.
Bryan shook his head. “I wanted those points desperately and knew the whole team was depending on me. I guess I lost my confidence, played scared, and started analyzing what my muscles should do instead of just trusting my skills.” A puzzled look spread over his face. ”It was like being back at the beginning when I first learned how to play.”
His explanation was on the money. Bryan had become incapacitated by his own thoughts by exerting too much conscious effort instead of trusting his 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.
A couple of theories explain what may be happening:
1. Explicit monitoring theory - Pressure raises self-consciousness and anxiety about performing correctly, which increases the conscious attention paid to skill processes and their step-by-step control. When humans fixate on themselves, trying to avoid mistakes or getting caught up in expectations, implicit learning fails. They lose the natural fluidity of performance and the grace of honed talent.
2. Distraction theory - 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. Under situations of stress, embroiled in negative thinking, explicit learning takes over and disrupts performances.
The human brain sometimes fails under pressure. Millions have witnessed this phenomenon in the unexpected catastrophes of Olympic trials and in almost any high-stakes sports event—although 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.”