The theory of choking under pressure and strategies to prevent occurrence
Choking under pressure has become a widely researched area within sports psychology and it’s exact definition is still unclear. The term ‘choking under pressure’, or an individuals skill levels being at a lower standard is feared by athletes of all standards. In any given situation, an athlete performing at a high level with an anxious desire to succeed is known as performance pressure. (Hardy, Mullen, & Jones, 1996). The occurrence of choking under pressure is of interest in a real-world and experimental setting where action-based and sensorimotor skills become more evident. (Beilock & Carr, 2001). Working memory is located in the prefrontal cortex and associated areas. It was updated from short term memory by Baddeley and Hitch in 1974. They argued that Atkinson and Shiffrin’s (1968) multi-store system was far too simple. Over the years, both working memory and short term memory has been researched in many different ways by various psychologists. Working memory consists of a central executive system which controls and co-ordinates two sub-sections: phonological loop and the visuo spatial pad. By creating this alternative model, working memory was described in further detail. Short term memory was noted as not a system of a single unitary from research and evidence provided in the 1970’s and 80’s from a brain damaged patient. Working memory is used inefficiently and the use of the pre-frontal cortex is not always beneficial. In stressful situations, the pre frontal cortex stops working the way it should. It then begins to focus too much, resulting in working too hard, which disrupts what you are doing which derails the original focus. Distraction can become an explanation as to why athlete’s choke under pressure as it makes the athlete worry about a situation and its consequence. It provides task irrelevant cues and compromises working memory. Self-focus becomes a factor as pressure raises self consciousness in an athlete.
Within an athletes lifestyle there are various ways of including techniques to enhance the athlete’s understanding of choking under pressure. Process goals can be defined as a way to execute a task effectively, by understanding which strategies, skills and behaviours are essential (Mullen, Faull, Jones & Kingston, 2015). Using this method can be beneficial to individuals who experience high levels of anxiety as it helps the performers deal with their anxiety levels by focusing their attention upon other aspects. By focusing on other aspects such as movement and the technique of their movement, Mullen & Hardy (2010; as cited in Mullen, Faull, Jones & Kingston, 2015) explain it could affect the processing of tasks for the skilled performers which were automatic. By affecting the automatic processing, it illustrates the conscious processing hypothesis (CPH) that Masters’ (1992) designed. Masters’ (1992) describes how by focusing upon a specific movement, the explicit knowledge could be what affects any automatic processing the athlete may be used too. When anxiety is elevated, a vital component to ensure success is to be able to remain focused and to be able to control attention (Janelle, 2002, as cited in, Vine, Moore & Wilson, 2014). In relation to remaining focused and the ability to control attention, quiet eye training is an interesting technique which has shown positive benefits within athlete’s performances. Following on from this statement, it shows how important using the ‘quiet eye’ technique is because it can analyse where an individual is looking before, during and after executing a shot. By being able to watch and analyse this information, it can be relayed back to athlete’s to inform them what needs to be done to provide optimal performance and train the brain and eyes to focus upon certain information for a long enough duration to deliver results. Following along the spectrum of using technology to improve and enhance individuals performance by reducing the likelihood of choking under pressure, a electroencephalography (EEG) has been introduced. The EEG uses movement tasks to asses an individuals cortical activity (Cooke, 2013 as cited in Ring, Cooke, Kavussanu, McIntyre & Masters, 2015). Both novices and experts are shown to be a benefit by using this method as experts show cortical specificity greater than novices, although novices show when learning the motor skill, greater increasing levels of the cortical specificity. Due to this research being up to date, this means the evidence is extremely limited. Ring et al, (2015) discuss although the research is very limited, there are case studies of elite athletes who explain how the feedback of using EEG has enhanced their performance levels.
Although this phenomenon is explored and feared by many athletes, more often than not, athlete’s will only be aware of the phenomenon and not understand there are ways to train to overcome this experience. As with learning any skill, the younger that you acquire these skills, the more efficient they become. Charness & Campbell, (1988); Harrington & Haaland, (1992 as cited in Touron, 2004), all agree that when comparing adults, older adults are more reluctant to be slower when grasping new skills, and not reaching the same optimal level as younger adults. Bryan, Lowe, Harter, & Noble (1897) and Miles, (1933 as cited in as cited in Touron, 2004) state that for a long period of time, there has been a deficit within the learning processing of skills which is specific to age. This can be implemented when analysing choking under pressure into individuals, for psychologists, coaches or players to understand what is happening within the phenomenon it would become easier for them to implement strategies from a younger age.
Beilock, S., & Carr, H. (2001). On the Fragility of Skilled Performance: What Governs Choking Under Pressure? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130, 4, 701-725. Doi: 10.1037/0096-3418.104.22.1681
Bryan, Lowe, W., Harter, & Noble. (1897). Studies in the physiology and psychology of the telegraphic language. Psychological Review, 4, 1, 27-53. as cited in Touron, D. (2004). Distinguishing Age Differences in Knowledge, Strategy Use, and Confidence During Strategic Skill Acquisition. Journal of Psychology and Aging, 19, 3, 452-466.
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Cooke, A. (2013). Readying the head and steadying the heart: a review of cortical and cardiac studies of preparation for action in sport. International Review of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 6, 122-138. Doi: 10.10801750984X.2012.724438. as cited in Ring, C., Cooke, A., Kavussanu, M., McIntyre, D., & Masters, R. (2015). Investigating the efficiency of neurofeedback training for expediting expertise and excellence in sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 16, 118-127.
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Mullen, R., Faull, A., Jones, E., & Kingston, K. (2015). Evidence for the effectiveness of holistic process goals for learning and performance under pressure. Psychology of sport and exercise, 17, 40-44.
Mullen, R., & Hardy, L. (2010). Conscious processing and the process goal paradox. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 32, 275-297. as cited in Mullen, R., Faull, A., Jones, E., & Kingston, K. (2015). Evidence for the effectiveness of holistic process goals for learning and performance under pressure. Psychology of sport and exercise, 17, 40-44.
Ring, C., Cooke, A., Kavussanu, M., McIntyre, D., & Masters, R. (2015). Investigating the efficiency of neurofeedback training for expediting expertise and excellence in sport. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 16, 118-127.
Touron, D. (2004). Cognitive Skill Learning. Journal of Psychology and aging, 19, 4, 565-580.
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About Kelly Bourne
21 year old. Bsc (Hons) Sport and Exercise Psychology graduate from Edge Hill University. Senior football player for Blackburn Rovers Football club and Senior welsh international.