Q: I have valuable skills and I’ve been working on them for a long time. But why do I always seem to choke under pressure? How can I stop choking when my performance is most important?
A: There are two competing theories that try to explain why people tend to choke under pressure. One study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2001 tested the two different theories against each other and then proposed a way to avoid choking under pressure.
Two researchers at Michigan State University sought to test two competing theories of why many people tend to choke under pressure.
- Distraction theories suggest that high-pressure environments are full of distractions that keep us from focusing on what we’re doing.
- Self-focus theories suggest that when we’re under pressure, we become too self-conscious and self-aware.
Here’s the theory behind the self-focus theory: We get good at skills by practicing them until they become automatic and we don’t have to walk ourselves through them anymore. However, on self-focus theory, when we become too self-aware we interrupt these automatic processes and we become like a novice again (self-consciously guiding ourselves through each step instead of letting our practiced skills happen on their own).
In a sense, these two theories are opposites. Do people choke under pressure because they’re too focused on what they’re doing, or not focused enough?
Here’s how the researchers tested this theory:
- Golf putting is a complex task, even for experienced golfers.
- The best putters become the best through practice. This means putting over and over again, day after day, until they build up knowledge of many different types of grass, contours of the land, wind speeds, etc.
- The question is: Do experienced, expert golfers consciously memorize each time they’ve ever putted, and then when they come up on a new green, do they recall, “Hey, I once putted a hole similar to this one, I’ll do what I did then”?
- OR, do the putters “encode” this information into their automatic/unconscious processes and forget about the details? If so, we might expect golfers to have a selective kind of “amnesia” about the particulars about any specific hole – because they have no need for that information. They simply “digest” all the information about various holes and toss out the rest of the information.
- If the latter is true, we could test this theory by seeing if experienced golfers more easily forget the specifics about particular holes, but are better overall.
The researchers got three groups of people for this experiment:
- Michigan State University intercollegiate golf team members
- Intercollegiate athletes with no golf experience
- Psychology undergraduates with no golf experience
Participants were all told that the purpose of the study is to test golfing ability.
Then, participants were asked to putt a certain hole that was specifically prepared for this activity.
- First, each participant took 20 putts toward the hole. Accuracy was measured by how close they got to the hole. Then, they filled out a questionnaire asking them to describe the steps involved in a typical golf putt.
- Second, the participants again took 30 putts toward the hole, and filled out the same questionnaire.
- Last, the participants were taken to a different location and were asked to remember specifics about the arrangement of the hole, what procedure they took, and the green they had just been putting.
As you should expect, the members of the MSU golf team were better at putting than the participants with no golf experience (they consistently got closer to the hole).
But here’s the interesting thing: the golf team members were way better at saying what an “ideal” golf putt procedure was (they had generic knowledge about what they were supposed to be doing).
- BUT when they were asked to remember of the particulars of the procedure they just followed, they provided the least information.
THIS suggests that the experienced, better golfers had formal knowledge about golf but didn’t bother to remember to specifics of any particular hole. They just applied that knowledge dynamically, in the moment.
This supports the theory that skilled performance is about behaving automatically based on experience, not about self-consciously guiding yourself through step-by-step.
This experiment was the same as the previous one, with some changes. The most important for our purposes are:
First, instead of putting from the same spot, participants were asked to putt from nine different directions.
Second, right before their last putt, participants were asked to monitor their performance carefully for later recall.
The important results here are that the experiment generally went the same as the last one (the experience putters did better than the inexperienced ones), but when participants were asked to carefully monitor what they were doing, they did more poorly.
DISCUSSION SO FAR:
Self-consciousness seems to be the main factor in choking. But can anything be done about this?
This time, they got a group of undergraduate students with no golf experience to putt towards a hole and measured their accuracy.
There were three different types of PRACTICE randomly given to participants:
Single-task group. These participants were simply asked to putt a large number of times towards a hole from 9 different directions.
Distraction group. In this group, participants putted toward the hole, but as they did so they were also given a second task (while they putted, they listened to a tape recording, and when they heard the word “cognition” they had to repeat it back to the experimenter).
Self-consciousness group. These participants were told that they were being videotaped while they putted so they could be evaluated by a number of golf teachers and coaches at MSU.
Then, after this, participants in ALL GROUPS did a “low pressure” trial where they simply putted toward the hole 18 times but did not know they were being evaluated.
THEN the participants got a “high pressure” trial where they were told they’d be given $5 if they could improve their putting. This is where participants were expected to CHOKE.
Generally, as they practiced, all groups got better until the last trial.
The experimenters were primarily interested in the last high pressure trial, because that’s when they expected participants to choke.
How did the type of practice influence choking?
Single-task group. Participants who just practiced without distraction and then were put in the high-pressure situation CHOKED (their performance got worse).
Distraction group. Like the single-task group, these participants choked in the high-pressure situation.
Self-consciousness group. These participants actually IMPROVED in the high-pressure situation!
What the? How does that work?
The participants who practiced under high-pressure evaluation didn’t choke when an additional high-pressure situation arose.
That’s because they had become used to the pressures of evaluation.
WHY do we choke when we’re in a high-pressure evaluation situation? This research suggests it’s because we forget the automatic skills we’ve developed by practicing and we become self-aware and self-conscious. We then have to go back to step-by-step guiding ourselves through tasks we already know.
HOW do we avoid choking in the future? The research suggests that we need to get USED to high-pressure evaluation. If we can practice while being evaluated, we will even be able to handle additional pressure on us when it really comes to crunch time.
Do you find yourself choking when:
- Public speaking
- Giving presentations
- Demonstrating musical or athletic skills
- Interacting with others socially
- In job interviews
Then maybe the solution is to practice in high-pressure environments. This means, instead of practicing in a closet by yourself, try practicing where it’s uncomfortable – in front of others.
- Demosthenes, a ancient Greek man born in 384 BC, grew up with a speech impediment. He was orphaned at a young age and when he got older he went through a series of legal battles over the management of his father's estate. This required pleading his case in front of prominent people and judges. According to the historian Plutarch, when Demosthenes first tried public speaking, people ridiculed him for the way he spoke (not only did he have a speech impediment, he also had a strange, rambling way of speaking that got in the way of his arguments).
- So in order to become a better public speaker, Demosthenes put himself through very rigorous training intended to mimic high-pressure situations. He would try to give speeches with pebbles in his mouth and while running up hills to simulate fatigue. It is also recorded that he would give speeches toward the loud and angry ocean, to strengthen his voice.
- Over time, Demosthenes became a great Greek statesman and orator, and even made a living writing speeches for other prominent men. It seems that Demosthenes knew something in 384 BC that was demonstrated by science in 2001 AD!
Beilock, S. L., & Carr, T. H. (2001). On the fragility of skilled performance: What governs choking under pressure? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130(4), 701-725. Link: https://hpl.uchicago.edu/sites/hpl.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/JEPG2001.pdf