Margins between success and failure in elite sport become smaller every year (UK Sport 2014). Consequently, performing under pressure can be extremely demanding for certain athletes (Hanton et.al. 2005 cited by Thelwell et al. 2010), as they understand the difficulty to ascertain success over rivals. Despite having the ability to perform skills effectively, and having the potential to achieve success, a variety of athletes perform sub-optimally in situations which amplify the importance of doing well, on particular occasions (Lewis and Linder 1997 cited by Jackson et al. 2006). This can be identified as choking.
This report explores the holistic approach of choking. Specifically, the article will focus on: the reasons why elite athletes ‘choke’ with links to theory, how elite athletes perform whilst under pressure, and prevention strategies to withstand choking.
What is choking?
The concept that is choking has received increased attention within psychology (Hill et al. 2010). It is associated with significant decrements in sports performance, following a period where athletes are perceived to be in an unbeatable position (Wang et al. 2004). Sports fanatics may utilise, Greg Norman’s failure to capitalize on a six-shot lead going into the final round of the 1996 Masters, and Jana Novotna’s dramatic performance collapse, after leading 4–1 in the final set of the 1993 Wimbledon Ladies’ Singles Final, to lose to Steffi Graf (Gucciardi et al. 2010), as renowned examples of choking in elite sport.
Mesango et al. (2009) defines choking as, “a critical deterioration in the execution of habitual processes, as a result of an elevation in anxiety levels under perceived pressure, leading to substandard performance.” In essence, choking refers to athletes performing sub-optimally, whilst under pressure, after seeming to be in an unbeatable position (Wang et al. 2004), and that’s why we see performance unravelling.
Sports psychologists may pay particular interest to the terminology, ‘a critical deterioration in the execution of habitual processes.’ This is because performance decrements, can potentially lead to individuals being extremely self-critical, as well as perhaps experiencing a decreased self- confidence (Hanton et al. 2010). If athletes feel like this constantly, then performance standards could be severely affected in the short term and long term (Hill et.al 2009). Thus, it is important that sport psychologists look to alleviate the chances of choking, to ensure that standards of athletic performance are high consistently.
Why do athletes choke?
To help conceptualise choking, perhaps the reader should consider a wide array of theories. Carver and Scheier (1981 cited by Hill et al. 2009) forward distraction based theories as a way to do this. Previous studies support the notion of physiological arousal increasing during performance, as a result of increased pressure. As a result of this, attention is said to narrow (Cox 2008). This refers to the athlete being bombarded with task-irrelevant stimuli. With this in mind, the athlete may encounter increased feelings of anxiety related cognitions, such as worry and self-doubt to the task at hand (Hill and Shaw 2013). Consequently, distractibility is likely to follow (Cox 2008, p.190), as the athlete is unable to manage the task-relevant and task irrelevant information available to him/her. This diverts their attention away from skill execution, which essentially activates choking (Dimmock and Gucciardi 2006).
The application of distraction based theories, could perhaps be explored through basketball. Evidence has suggested that 5% – 10% of free throws, attempted by performers, in the final minute of very close NBA games are less accurate (Cao et al. 2011 cited by Schucker et al. 2013), and therefore athletes are less likely to be successful and more susceptible to choking. Under the distraction framework, theorists would suggest that, the performance pressure may produce a distracting environment for the adept performer, drawing their attention away from skill execution which in this case, is the free throw. It is imperative that sport psychologists ensure that the psychological techniques, which help to regulate the concentration and arousal of the performer, are overlearned; as this will help to minimalize the breakdown of a skill, as a result of distraction (Nideffer 1988).
It is also important that academics consider Self-Focus theories, to help conceptualise choking. This theory shows that: performance pressure, which is recognized as an anxious desire to compete at a high standard in certain situations (Hardy et.al 1996 cited by Beilock and Carr 2001), heightens self-focus. This refers to the athlete generating conscious attention about performing correctly (Jackson et al. 2006). When experiencing this, athletes have a tendency to consciously monitor the skill, which is normally regarded as autonomous. However, the process of reinvestment prevents the efficient processing of a well learned skill (Masters 1992 cited by Hill and Shaw 2013), and a breakdown in performance occurs resultantly. This involves the athlete attempting to regulate their movements, utilising explicit rules rather than instinctive habits (Lavallee 2004). Put simply, as the arousal levels of the athlete increase, from the rising performance pressure, the individual focuses their attention on the outcome of the skill rather than the process of the skill. This disrupts the execution of the skill as the athlete essentially overthinks (Asp 2013). This leads to a type of ‘paralysis by analysis’ (Lavalee 2004), where the athlete thinks about themselves and the importance of the event, as opposed to the task at hand.
The reader may like to apply self-focus hypothesis, as an explanation for Rory McIlroy’s choke, during the Masters at Augusta, 2011. The athlete threw away a four shot lead and dropped 6 shots in three holes; a rarity for an athlete of his calibre. The demise in his performance saw Charl Schwartzel overtake him on the leader board and secure the prestigious Green Jacket. Self-Focus theory would suggest that the pressure elicited from the competition, provoked McIIroy to undertake a mind-set where conscious monitoring of the task at hand had dominated. Perhaps the athlete was so focused on the skill requirements, such as swing elevation and posture; that he entered a state of reinvestment, leading to the disruption of the skill. Sports fans see the result of this, which in this case, may be the ball sailing away from its target.
Does Personality have a part to play?
Whilst both distraction based and self-focus based theories are both credited, Murayama (2010) points out that, ‘Choking under pressure’ research, has also correlated in a strong relationship with personality traits. These comprise of nervousness, high self-consciousness and high trait anxiety. This adds another lens to which academics and the reader can analyse the reasons for choking.
With regards to utilising self-consciousness as an indicator for choking, modern literature supports the trends that reveal athletes who portray high self-consciousness, as likely to have a high vulnerability to experience choking (Mesagno et al. 2012). The reader may have already come to this conclusion after applying high self-consciousness as a source of choking, for Rory Mcilroy’s demise. However, the foundational literature emanating from Baumeister (1984 cited by Mesagno et al. 2012) declares that athletes actually low in self- consciousness perform poorly under pressure. This is because they aren’t familiar of being self-conscious under pressure, and suffer a drop in performance resultantly (Mesagno et al. 2012). The statements from the respective researchers, highlight how ‘self-consciousness,’ can be seen as a potential source for choking, for athletes with differing levels. The relevance of this then, is significant for sports psychologists. This is because they will need to know how to facilitate differing levels of self-consciousness to enhance performance, and in doing so, decrease likelihoods of choking.
Whilst sports fans witness athletes choking under pressure, perhaps as a result of debilitative anxiety (Mesango and Marchant 2013), some athletes are able to perform better under pressure and exhibit clutch performances consequently. Otten (2009 cited by Wang et al. 2004, p.584) describes a clutch performance as, “any performance increment or superior performance that occurs under pressure circumstances.” In fact, some performers are renowned for doing this. Jerry West, for example, was recognized as ‘Mr Clutch,’ in basketball during the 1960’s and 70’s (Otten 2009) based on the fact that he was able to execute shots successfully, towards the end of the matches. The ability to execute clutch performances will be a focus for sports psychologists. This is because, they will want to develop an athlete’s ability to perform to a high level, whilst under pressure, so the chance of success is greater.
The question arises in how sports psychologists can do this? Iso-Ahola and Dotson (2014) proclaim that, psychological momentum could to be a potential antidote to choking, which may provide the pathway for clutch performances additionally. This can be defined as, the added psychological power that gives the person a feeling that he/she has an advantage over their opposition (Iso-Ahola and Mobily 1980 cited by Jones and Harwood 2008). To ascertain this, Iso-Ahola and Dotson (2014) assert that prior success can produce an increased sense of confidence and efficacy, giving rise to perceptions of momentum. Perhaps then, sports psychologists should encourage athletes to analyse their successful performances (Cox 2008), in the hope that self-efficacy can be attained, which could be the stepping stone for momentum. In essence, if athletes realise that they have performed the skill/task before hand successfully, then this will hopefully motivate them to persevere to achieve success in present and future competition, driving momentum forward resultantly.
Researchers could utilise Andy Murray’s victory at Wimbledon 2013, as an example that supports Ahola and Dotson’s findings on momentum, in relation to clutch performances. Before winning the Wimbledon Championships in 2013, Andy Murray was awarded runner up at the Australian Open, as well as being crowned champion at The Queens Club Championships, which occurred a week before Wimbledon commenced. Academics may infer that Murray’s momentum going into the tournament, from his previous performances in 2013, played a pivotal role in allowing him to perform whilst under pressure, and exhibit a clutch performance consequently. Researchers and sports psychologists might consider then, focusing training on momentum with the hope that athletes can achieve a clutch performance when under pressure, alleviating likelihoods of choking.
However, psychologists may decide to address the issue of, what happens when momentum ceases, or what if the original momentum was purely coincidental? Following Wimbledon 2013, Murray lost in the second round of Qatar Open, Doha, to number 40 seed Florian Mayer. The example reveals a severe downfall in terms of performance. This may incline researchers and psychologists then, to analyse other constructs for enhancing clutch performances as opposed to relying on momentum as a primary source.
Since choking is said to occur when athletes are performing whilst under pressure, it seems appropriate that one investigates the concept that is coping. Coping consists of what a person does in relation to stressors (Gallucci 2008, p.51).The related construct is regarded as a dispositional characteristic when analysing choking susceptibility (Mesango et al. 2011). It is important then, that sports psychologists look to integrate strategies for teams and individuals to cope with stress, or risk the failure of athletes to fully function in athletic performance (Lazarus 2000 cited by Nicholls and Polman 2007).
Cox (2008) forwards the utility of emotion-focused strategies as a way to do this. These strategies look to control emotions, in order to manage cognitive distress (Cox 2008). Positive self- talk, and social support are recognized as emotion-focused constructs, which may be employed during tough situations (Thelwell et al. 2010). Alternatively, the reader may be intrigued in how problem-focused strategies can be utilised to aid the prevention of choking. These strategies are directed at managing the self or environment (Nicholls et al. 2007). A psychologist may incorporate goal setting, for example, as a form of planning under the ‘problem-focused’ bracket. In doing so, this may help to minimalize the prevalence of choking providing that the goals are not set beyond ones capabilities (Gallucci, 2008). Whichever techniques a sports psychologist chooses to integrate for athletes; they will have to establish that disappointments and setbacks can often transpire in the pursuit for excellence. Therefore, the strategies implemented must emphasise on building efficacy beliefs so that optimism is swiftly reinstated if disappointment occurs (Gallucci 2008, p.172).
After revealing several examples across an array of sports, one could deduce that choking is ever present in elite sport. When the stakes are high, athletes feel the pressure that the competition elicits, and consequently perform sub-optimally.
However, the framework for analysing choking appears to be widespread, and portrays that athlete’s choke for different reasons. Whether it be a result of distraction, self-focus or due to personality traits. Therefore, the reader could infer that each theory or explanation for choking, can be credited and applicable, depending on the athlete and the nature of the competition. Moreover, the significance of choking can be seen to be extremely relevant to sport psychologists. They will want to alleviate any chances of the athlete choking, or be able to manage the effects of choking, should it occur. This will ensure, that athletes have the best opportunity to reach success and exhibit clutch performances, hopefully leading to consistency with future performances, whilst limiting the prevalence of choking in doing so.
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About Henry Breck
An undergraduate student at Bournemouth University, reading BSc (Hons) Sports Psychology and Coaching Sciences. I am hugely passionate about sport. I relish participating, enjoy watching and get a buzz out of coaching. I have a long term ambition of assisting professional athletes in their quest to become better and overcome any hurdles, through becoming an accredited Sports Psychologist.