Here's Why You Choke

Study: Fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy

He was probably overthinking it.     Photo: Purestock/Thinkstock

It's been three months since the Denver Broncos got walloped in Super Bowl XLVIII, and you can bet that Peyton and Co. are still trying to make sense of their collapse. We've already determined that because the game was played at a neutral site, home field advantage wasn't the culprit—but new research suggests Denver players simply might've been more afraid of failure than their Seahawk counterparts.

This week, British sports scientists will present research at the British Psychological Society's annual conference confirming that when athletes fear losing, they're more likely to choke.

"Our research indicates that heightened cognitive anxiety, brought on by the competitive scenario, really does affect performance abilities in physically active people—and the same is likely to apply even for trained athletes," said Dr. Michael Duncan, the study's lead author and a professor at Coventry University.

Duncan distinguished cognitive anxiety—such as the fear of failure—from somatic anxiety, which generates sensations like butterflies in the tummy when responding to tension. Athletes might feel unaffected physically by their anxiety, but cognitive stress can cause them to choke. 

To gather their evidence, Duncan and his colleagues tested study participants' ability to anticipate and coordinate actions, known as coincidence anticipation timing, in practice and competitive scenarios. Anxiety proved most detrimental during the most physically challenging parts of the competitive trials, but had negligible effects during practice situations. 

So, while we know it might be hard, the next time your favorite team is losing, cut them some slack. They might just be stressed out.

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