Choking under Pressure

West Coast Swing Online Grab Bag

Choking is one of the most universally feared experiences in any skill-based activity. The idea of your body or mind suddenly failing to execute tasks you’ve done a thousand times in your sleep is terrifying. Fortunately, it’s also much rarer than you would think.

Believe it or not, most of us aren’t actually good enough to choke under pressure. To understand why, we need to look at what chocking actually is.

When you learn a skill, all of the elements have to be learned independently and processed consciously. Brain-imaging experiments have shown that the key region of the brain is the prefrontal cortex. As we gain proficiency in the skill, more of the activity migrates to the basal ganglia and the implicit motor control system. In other words, we develop the ability to do the skill subconsciously, without having to think about every little muscle movement. This is a good thing, because the explicit motor control system is just too slow to handle the thousands of elements that need to be coordinated in the span of a few hundredths of a second to produce a single cohesive movement.

Choking occurs when this transition from the explicit to the implicit system breaks down. An expert who normally works with the implicit motor control systems suddenly, for whatever reason, is trying to control the movement with the explicit system. This is a huge problem: the explicit system way too slow and limited to coordinate the movement in real time. That’s a choke.

So where’s the good news? Well, it turns out that choking can only occur in people who are genuine experts at the skill in question. For people who are still learning a skill (and if you’re reading this, odds are good that you fall into that category for WCS), paying more explicit attention to the performance of the skill actually improves your performance. Researchers at the University of Dayton proved this by studying Tetris players. In a competitive environment with a big audience, the novice Tetris players improved their playing abilities, while the expert players got worse. The pressure moved the experts from their implicit to explicit systems, producing a choking effect. By contrast, the novice players were already using their explicit systems, so the added pressure simply caused them to use that system more effectively (since they were so focused).

In other words, don’t be afraid of choking under pressure. For all but the top tier of performers, pressure is more likely to make you perform better.

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