The London Olympics of 2012 showcased a buffet of sporting heroes, but the Games also proved a ‘choking’ minefield for many athletes. Erratic shooting and overambitious passes in the Women’s Basketball resulted in the headline, ‘Team GB choke in final quarter’18. The Australian Men’s 4x100m relay team was accused of ‘choking’ away the Gold 1 .And world number one Women’s Archer, Deepika Kumari, ‘crashed out’ in the first round 37.

The ‘choking’ cases in London’s Olympics demonstrate how elite athletes sometimes perform poorly in high pressure situations. Choking is the ‘the occurrence of suboptimal performance under pressure conditions’2 despite having the capability, motivation and incentive to succeed29. There has been discursive criticism over use of the term ‘choking’ in sport due to its negative connotations of death and suffocation20, but its etymological origin shows anxiety as an underlying cause (the Latin word for anxiety, ‘angere’, means ‘to choke’) 40.

Contemporary Sport Psychology has disregarded choking as a personality problem and instead treats it as an ‘anxiety-based attention difficulty’40, explained predominantly by distraction and self-focus theories. Distraction theories suggest that perceived pressure uses working memory (WM) resources which cause inefficiency in processing task relevant information. Self-focus theories propose that perceived pressure increases self-consciousness, drawing attention inwards, causing athletes to monitor/control movements that would normally be unconscious23.

This essay explores Explicit Monitoring Theory (EMT), a self-focus theory, using the case study of table tennis player Matthew Syed who choked at the Olympics in 2000. EMT explains choking through ‘paralysis by analysis’ – a motivational paradox whereby performance is disrupted by athletes consciously monitoring their usually automatic movements7. The essay critically analyses EMT, contrasting it to alternative explanations of choking such as Processing Efficiency Theory (PET)13 and Object Relations Theory Research-based14 intervention strategies are then suggested.

Matthew Syed was England table tennis number one for almost a decade, three times Commonwealth Champion and went to the Sydney Olympics in ‘the form of his life,’22. But instead of displaying his ‘roof threatening’ talent, he failed to make it past the preliminary round – he choked22.

Syed’s ‘psychological catastrophe’ meets Moran’s (2012) definition of choking: he had the ability to compete at Olympic level – he won the Commonwealth title the same year, he had the motivationto succeed, and he perceived the sport situation as important…unquestionably the biggest competition of my career’22. The choke was significant – Syed lost 21-8 and 21-4 51, and acute(not a slump) – he went on to become Commonwealth Champion the following year conforming to Gucciardi and Dimmock’s (2008)21 and Hill et al.’s (2010)23 criteria for choking.

EMT helps to explain Syed’s choke. In his book, Bounce, Syed compares the automaticity of his sporting performance to driving on autopilot; ‘I probably have less knowledge of the rules of the road than when I passed my test’52. EMT proposes that it is conscious monitoring of these previously automatic skills that causes choking. Syed’s performance was impaired by over-thinking, causing him to regress ‘to being a beginner again’22.

Like Syed’s choke, the media is littered with anecdotal evidence of how choking can be explained by EMT, however objective and systematic research is required to explore the effect of pressure on performance40.

Empirical research using the dual task paradigm supports EMT over distraction theories23. Beilock, Carr, MacMahon and Starkes (2002)8 found that elite golfers were able to maintain their level of performance in a distraction condition but performance deteriorated in an explicit-monitoring-induced self-focus condition. However, the study did not manipulate pressure which could have been introduced as another variable via financial incentive or filming performance.

Gray (2004)19 expanded Beilock et al.’s (2002)8 study, incorporating pressure manipulation in baseball batting, increasing validity. Findings replicated previous studies – batters’ performance was unaffected by a distraction task but impaired by a self-focus task. Kinematic data of bat swing was also analysed, improving objectivity. Analysis showed batters explicitly controlled skill execution whilst they were self-focused, supporting EMT.

Critics of the dual task paradigm argue that the self-focus condition may have caused an attentional loading effect, overwhelming participants’ WM, causing choking via distraction56. However Gray (2004)19 found that, unlike experts, novice batters improved in the pressurised self-focus condition. As novices explicitly monitor skill execution and process it through WM14 this demonstrates that the self-focus task did not overwhelm WM, but encouraged explicit monitoring23. This highlights how the effect of attentional focus varies across levels of expertise14.

Jackson, Ashford and Norsthwory (2006)28 manipulated attentional focus and pressure in experienced hockey players performing a dribbling task. Results conformed to EMT predictions; performance was disrupted in the skill-focus condition and facilitated in the dual-task condition (because WM was occupied, preventing explicit monitoring). However, dual-task and skill-focus conditions may have placed different attentional demands on hockey players56. Whilst Jackson et al. (2006)28 tested pressure manipulation was effective, there was no check to see if the skill-focus condition succeeded in encouraging explicit monitoring56.

All research requiring participants to monitor skill execution requires further investigation to establish whether impaired performance is due to explicit monitoring or because athletes are performing the skill in a novel fashion28.

Alternative approaches to choking also have experimental support. Jordet’s (2009)30 research supports Baumeister’s (1997) model of self-defeating behaviour. In a video analysis of penalty shootouts, results showed that fast penalty kick taking was correlated with impaired performance, concluding that pressure induces increased self-consciousness, leading to self-regulation breakdown, less preparation time (used to escape the situation) and reduced performance. Whilst appearing to oppose EMT, Jordet’s research does not allow ‘unambiguous conclusions to be drawn’30 and highlights a potential moderator of choking: task difficulty.

Whilst EMT explains expert skill failure of skills usually executed automatically, a penalty kick may require conscious control. Complex skills requiring the use of WM are likely to break down due to distraction regardless of skill level55. Research suggests there are multiple routes to skill failure depending on the extent to which skill execution requires explicit attentional control11.

Neuropsychological studies have identified a neuronal basis to choking, based on the cognitive-automatic shift in skill acquisition15. Research shows activation in the ventral striatum during learning decreases when behaviour is autonomised25. Whilst use of rats in Howe et al.’s (2011)25 study reduces validity, Electroencephalographic (EEG) readings of elite athletes show that increased activation in the ventral striatum during performance (as opposed to the ‘rare mental tranquillity’35 (usually exhibited) correlates with reduced performance12. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) also found that choking correlates with increased activity in the ventral striatum, suggesting that, when under pressure, experts regress to a novice-like way of processing, providing support for EMT and the progression-regression mechanism39.

Whilst experimental methodology has identified EMT has the ‘most plausible mechanism of choking’23 , studies lack ecological validity due to the isolation of variables and the studies’ removal from the sports field setting. Research fails to acknowledge power relations between researcher and participant and the pressure that this could induce even in ‘low pressure’ conditions9. Use of deception (e.g. a ‘cover story’ to induce pressure) raises ethical concerns, however full debriefing ensures studies meet British Psychological Association guidelines28.

EMT aims to be applied universally to experts performing automatic skills, however fails to account for the personal experience of athletes. Qualitative research using verbal reports concluded that skill-focused attention ‘rarely occurs naturally when athletes perform under pressure’, instead supporting PET43. However, PET relies heavily on self-report data; if the automatic-explicit monitoring shift can occur unconsciously, then this will not be available to self-report methods.

EMT, PET and the cognitive approach to choking can ‘only take you so far’14. From a discursive perspective, Syed argues that athletes find being labelled as ‘somebody who chokes extraordinarily difficult to handle’22. EMT fails to acknowledge the power of discourse in constructing social reality and the influence of such language on performance failure9. This is exemplified by football penalty shootouts being likened to the ‘outcome of a lottery’31.

In an attempt to look for causes of performance failure through manipulation of variables, processes which are not amenable to experimentation or measurement are neglected by EMT. A psychoanalytic approach suggests that Syed’s performance failure was caused by a collapse of the self, disorganised thinking, and unconsciously choosing humiliation over ‘psychosis-producing’ emotion (Kohl, as cited by Singh, 2009, p.5). Choking is seen as a defensive manoeuvre to escape from the pressure situation rather than an attentional problem: ‘My one thought was to get out of there’47. The lay psychology of tennis differentiates ‘tanking’ (losing a match to ‘get it over with’)49 from choking, highlighting conceptual difficulties in construct definitions.

An Object Relations Approach suggests that winning is associated with shame, guilt and separation anxiety14. Gabbard (1997)16  proposes that success can bring with it a sense of dread that the athlete is leaving their family behind. Syed acknowledges the role of his upbringing in that he was born to an ‘ordinary’ family with ‘no advantages’, merely being ‘blessed’ with good fortune52.

Although EMT ignores these ‘deep rooted’ entities, it has greater scientific validity and pragmatic value than critical perspectives. However, both approaches may be compatible; whereas EMT is fitting to the rational-technical conditions of the west and explains the causes and effects of choking, narrative inquisition gives athletes the opportunity to ‘tell their story’40 as a form of expressive therapy14.