Choking Under Pressure

Some people thrive under pressure, while others, like me, get anxious, then crash and burn. Why does anxiety lead people some individuals to perform far worse than would be expected of them, why does it lead them to, as it is said, “choke under pressure”? No one fully knows the answer to this question. However, according to the predominant theory of choking under pressure, the explicit-monitoring theory, anxiety causes choking episodes because it causes you to explicitly attend to, or monitor, or consciously control processes that would normally occur outside of consciousness. On explicit monitoring theory, what is wrong with us chokers is that we try to consciously attend to and control movements that we typically perform automatically, movements that were and should have proceeded via what is sometimes called “muscle memory.” Or as the psychologist Sian Beilock (2010) tells us, in high-pressure situations, high-level skills “are hurt, not because of worrying, but because of the attention and control that worry produces” (p. 193).

Is this view about the relationship between anxiety and skill correct? In particular, does focus and conscious control cause poor performance at the expert level? My answer, as you may have guessed if you’ve read my previous post, is no: experts can and often do perform at their best while thinking—even consciously thinking—about what they are doing. Moreover, rather than it being the case that anxiety causes monitoring and control, which itself causes choking, redoubling one’s effort to monitor and control ones actions can sometimes be the best way to counter anxiety.

The idea that explicit monitoring and conscious control do not precipitate choking incidents, however, is not an easy position to defend since there are legions of studies that purport to provide evidence for the view that attention to, monitoring and conceptualization of, and conscious control over one’s well-practiced movements degrades performance. I address a couple handfuls of them in my book, however, let me here give you a bit of the flavor of how some of these studies work. Participants, usually college students, are divided into two groups, a more highly skilled group and a novice group. Both groups are then asked to perform a skill, such as a golf swing, under various conditions: as they normally perform it (the control condition); while directing their attention to a specific aspect of their own movement (the skill-related supplemental task condition); and while engaging in an extraneous task (the skill-unrelated supplemental task condition). Generally, the results of such studies are that relative to the control condition, the more highly skilled athletes perform significantly worse in the skill-related supplemental task condition yet only marginally (or negligibly) worse in the skill-unrelated supplemental task condition, whereas novices, relative to the control condition, perform significantly worse in the skill-unrelated condition and about the same in the skill-related condition. The psychologist Gabrielle Wulf (2007) summarizes the research in this area by saying that the “findings clearly show that if experienced individuals direct their attention to the details of skill execution, the result is almost certainly a decrement in performance.” Seems like support for the explicit-monitoring theory of choking.

How do I account for these results? If you read Chapter 4 of my book, you’ll see that I don’t think that there is any simple or definite reason to think that such experiments do not show what Wulf thinks that they do.  However, one central reason to question them is that the skill-related supplementary task may elicit a type of focus which, though skill-related (such as, a focus on when you reach the height of your golf swing), is not the skill-related focus that experts typically adopt. And it is this that throws them off. Moreover, the skill-related supplementary task may be more distracting for those who are faster at performing a task or who are better at focusing on their movements— presumably, the experts—and if the skill-related focus the participants are asked to maintain is not the one they typically adopt, this could hinder their performance more than it hinders a novice’s performance.

Researchers such Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986) and Fitts and Posner (Fitts 1964; Fitts and Posner 1967) see the progression from novice to expert as leading to greater and still greater automaticity (where automatic actions are defined as non-reflective and non-conscious). However, I favor Anders Ericsson’s (2008) theory of skill acquisition, according to which falling into automaticity results in a plateau of skill, or what Ericsson refers to as “arrested development.” On his view, once one achieves automaticity, merely repeating an action over and over again does little to improve it, and thus, as Ericsson sees it, “the key challenge for aspiring expert performers is to avoid the arrested development associated with automaticity” (p. 694). (Think about tying your shoes and how stagnant your technique is; if you were to work in a focused manner on increasing your speed, or the strength of the knot, or the aesthetic qualities of the bow, such as its symmetry, you might improve.) Those who move beyond automaticity by engaging their conscious minds during analytical, thoughtful, and effortful practice—the group I’m referring to as “experts”—might not be derailed by focusing on and reporting on skill-related tasks as long as they are relevant.

In sum, I think that there is some reason to doubt the conclusions of the experiments that purport to show that attention to highly-practiced skills interferes with their execution. Besides, it is worth noting that not all studies on how attention affects performance at the expert level have shown that skill-focus interferes with high-level performance: Suss and Ward (2010), for example, asked expert shooters to monitor the action of their trigger finger while shooting and found that relative to a situation where they were asked to focus on a skill unrelated task, the shooters performed just as well.

Although the idea that pressure induces choking because it provokes experts to focus on or think about what they are doing is a widely accepted theory about the relationship between performance anxiety and choking, there is a competing theory, which, far from supporting the idea that high level performance proceeds best when it runs offline, runs counter to it. This is the view, sometimes referred to as “distraction theory,” holds that high pressure draws attention away from the task at hand and to irrelevant aspects of performance, such as worries over how performance will be judged and the possibility of failure (Wine 1971). Distraction theory is supported by the idea that anxiety is thought to impair working memory and executive control (e.g., Ashcraft and Kirk 2001; Darke 1988; Derakshan and Eysenck 1998; Eysenck et al. 2005; Hayes et al. 2008; MacLeod and Donnellan 1993), both of which are important components of, among other things, planning and strategizing.

Researchers who explain choking under pressure in terms of “thinking too much” accept that anxiety can lead one to think about irrelevant aspects of performance as well, but as they see many sports skills as not highly dependent on cognition (since they understand such skills as automatic) they cannot lean on the distraction theory to explain the cause of choking while performing such skills. But in some of these cases, that might be the better explanation. Anxiety might, among other things, lead one to focus more on what one is doing, or monitor ones actions, but, from what we have seen, there is room to doubt that such focus necessarily interferes with even well-learned skills.

In fact, there is some evidence that expert athletes, rather than suffering because of the type of thought anxiety provokes, use increased focus and effort as a tool to cope with anxiety.

For example, the sport and exercise psychologist Adam Nicholls (2006) and colleagues that asked elite athletes to keep a diary of stressors that occurred and coping strategies that they employed during games, as well as to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, how effective these coping strategies were. Though small-scale, the study indicates that a common method of dealing with stress involves redoubling both effort and attention and that such methods are perceived as more effective than other methods.

Finally, high anxiety induces various physiological changes that appear to hinder performance. The fight-or-flight response which anxiety produces shunts blood flow to the larger muscles, leaving cold feet and hands, and thus motor skills relying on the hands or feet may be harmed. It can cause loss of peripheral vision, increased perspiration, and tremors. These points may be obvious, but they are often not mentioned in the literature on choking. The choke is thought to be something different in kind. But is it? Or might the anxiety of posting a response to this question make you too distracted to actually arrive at an answer?