What Does it Mean to Choke Under Pressure?

Summertime means summer sports. And that means that you open yourself up the chance for the most humiliating of sports experiences -- the choke.
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Summertime means summer sports. And that means that you open yourself up the chance for the most humiliating of sports experiences -- the choke. It might be blowing a 5-3 lead in a tennis set, or missing a three-foot putt for birdie. It just feels awful though, when suddenly your skills leave you and you can't do anything right.

Choking is the broad name for any situation where you perform worse than you should because of some kind of pressure or stress. Chances are, you have experienced choking in some situation, whether it is playing a sport, giving a talk in front of a crowd or taking an important test.

Psychologists have gotten quite interested in choking over the past decade or so. Indeed, last year, two books on choking came out at almost the same time, Sian Beilock's "Choke," and Paul Sullivan's "Clutch."

There are two main theories about what causes people to choke under pressure. One view is distraction. This theory says that when people are under pressure it causes them to worry about the situation, and that soaks up some of the precious thinking resources we need to be effective.

The other view is monitoring. This theory says that many cases of choking happen when people are trying to perform a skill that is well practiced. Pressure causes people to start thinking about how to perform that skill, and this monitoring of performance actually hurts performance because it gets in the way of the habit.

A paper by Marci DeCaro, Robin Thomas, Neil Albert and Sian Beilock in the August, 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: "General suggests that both factors may cause choking, and that these forms of pressure affect different performance situations."

Distraction happens most often when pressure comes from having to achieve a particular outcome. For example, if you are taking a hard exam then you may be focused on achieving the best possible score. Thinking about the score and your performance on each question is distracting, and may get in the way of excellence. Distraction has its biggest effects on testing situations in which you have to think carefully or creatively to perform well.

Monitoring happens in situations where the pressure comes from being observed by others. Finding yourself on stage giving a talk, or knowing that your performance is being watched by experts can lead you to monitor your performance and that will get in the way of execution of skills. Monitoring has its biggest influences on performance of well-learned skills (like putting or tennis ground strokes).

What can you do to protect yourself from choking? The answer depends on the kind of situation you are in.

When you need to think at your peak, then focus on your performance rather than the outcome. That will help you to avoid the key factor that creates performance pressure when smart thinking is required.

When you have to perform a well-learned skill, then focus yourself on the outcome rather than the performance. That also means that, as you are learning the skill, you should focus on outcomes rather than on the movements required to create those outcomes. If you are learning to play music, focus on the sound of the music rather than the movements you need to perform or create the music. If you are learning a sport, focus on the outcome of your behavior rather than on the movements. The habit to focus on outcomes will help you when you are in a pressure situation.

And in the end, try to have fun with whatever you are doing.