Choking in sport is a topic which is widely discussed among sport psychologists because of its negative effect on athletic performance. Performing highly challenging skills under immense pressure and in situations which are important to athletes has been something which has affected many athletes throughout their careers . The explicit monitoring theory is a key theory which has been used to help us understand this phenomena.

Before looking at the explicit monitoring theory it is important to understand how a skill is learnt.  When learning a new skill a person must progress through a number of different stages.  Fitts and Posner (1967) argued that in the early stages of learning, skill execution is supported by control structures which are stored in the working memory and are constantly consciously being attended to.  When a novice learns a new skill they will be continually testing out different hypotheses of how to perform.  By doing this the person will build a platform in which they have a better understanding of the movements that need to be performed which is encoded verbally through declarative knowledge.  Over time and practice conscious attention will not be needed to concentrate on the specifics and the knowledge that underpins the skill will have been combined into automated procedural knowledge.  Beilock and Carr (2001) used the term explicit monitoring to understand why people choke under pressure.  Baumeister (1984) argues that when an athlete is in a pressured situation this in term will increase their self-consciousness and anxiety about how they should be performing a skill.  This causes the athlete to focus their attention on their self and the specifics of how to execute a skill through explicit monitoring .

Many different studies have been conducted generating evidence for the explicit monitoring theory.  However it is important to acknowledge that there are large differences when studying this theory among expert and novice performers. Firstly compared to novices the procedural knowledge to perform at expert level is less accessible to verbal recall.  Secondly because experts devote less time and attention to performing a highly challenging skill, the memory for those components will be worse for those players.  Therefore because expert performers do not need to consciously attend to skills they have more attentional resources to process other information from external stimuli. Beilock, Bertenthal, McCoy, and Carr (2004) looked at differences in expert and novice golf performers under a skill focused and dual task condition.  In the skill focused condition, novice’s performance improved as it aided execution, whereas in the dual task condition it took the focus away from this. However because experts perform skills which are largely unattended the skill focus condition disrupted performance. These differences between novices and experts shows that explicit monitoring has little influence on the control of movements in the early stages of learning. Therefore paying too much attention to skill execution when taking a penalty will disrupt performance as well-learned skills are best performed without conscious awareness.

When taking a penalty not only can we relate choking to the explicit monitoring theory but there are also many other factors which can contribute and should be taken into consideration.  Baumeister (1997) associates choking as a type of self-regulatory breakdown under ego threat.  This can be described as a form of behaviour where a player would feel distressed in a situation and therefore do whatever they can to get it over with as quickly as possible.  To avoid this stressful situation a player will engage in escapist self-regulatory behaviours such as speeding up to take the penalty.  This can also be linked very closely to avoidance behaviours such as facing away from the goalkeeper when taking a penalty (Jordet & Hartman, 2008).  Research conducted has supported this theory by looking at the links between public status and performance in penalty shootouts.  From the study it was found that players with high current status performed worse in penalty shootouts than those with low status and engaged in more escapist behaviours.  As well as this Jordet (2009a) also looked at the effects of team status on choking in penalty shootouts.  He found that players from teams who had many international awards were quicker to take their penalties in comparison to teams who had low status. Therefore high public and team status can also be a factor which contributes to choking as it can cause the players to engage in more escapist behaviour.

Hopefully this article would have provided you with a deeper insight into what happens when an athlete chokes under pressure and other factors that can play a role within the process.