Runner with his hands to his face in anguish in front of a cloudy sky
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Why We Choke and How to Perform When It Matters

Brain science reveals the reasons we choke when we care most about our performance, and strategies to build the confidence we need to avoid it.

Runner with his hands to his face in anguish in front of a cloudy sky
Getty Images

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The scientific term for choking is “choking.” Psychologists haven’t come up with anything that sounds more clinical. Sian Beilock, a psychologist and leading expert on choking, defined the phenomenon in her book Choke as “poor performance that occurs in response to the perceived stress of a situation.” The source of perceived stress is one’s sense of the importance of the performance in question—specifically, the importance of achieving a certain outcome from it. Choking is therefore a kind of ironic self-sabotage. The desire to maximize performance and achieve a particular outcome creates a feeling of pressure. This feeling of pressure compromises performance and ensures that the wanted outcome is not achieved.

Some people are more susceptible to choking than others, but everyone is susceptible to some degree. The universality of this weakness suggests that choking serves a practical purpose—that it is an evolved coping skill with benefits for survival. But what survival advantage could possibly be conferred by a tendency to underperform in important situations?

Choking is probably useful in much the same way that acrophobia (fear of heights) and glossophobia (fear of public speaking) are believed to be useful. Like the propensity for choking, fear of heights is stronger in some individuals than it is in others but exists in all humans. One of the symptoms of acrophobia is dizziness, which increases the likelihood that a person will fall when standing at the edge of a long drop. It seems a rather backward instinct, but this symptom keeps us from getting too close to the edge in the first place, and thereby aids survival.

Fear of public speaking is also helpful in an ironic sort of way. At the root of glossophobia is dread of being socially judged. Although fear of public speaking today seems absurdly out of proportion to the worst-case outcome of making a fool of oneself, sociobiologists believe that in the ancient past, the social ostracization that followed failure in front of an audience was often fatal. In any case, this fear only increases the likelihood that a person will perform poorly when speaking publicly and become the target of a negative judgment, but its true purpose is to prevent us from taking the risk of putting ourselves out there to begin with.

Choking is similar. Most likely, the phenomenon originated in situations of high-stakes (i.e., life-or-death) competition. It serves us by discouraging us from entering into competitive situations in which we are likely to come up short. But it is far less helpful as a coping skill when we cannot avoid competition or we choose to enter into it despite the risks. Psychologist Abraham Maslow referred to choking as the “Jonah complex,” which he understood to be essentially a fear of success. In the athletic context, this description hits the nail on the head.

The recent revolution in brain science has revealed that it is not pressure per se that causes people to perform poorly in important competitions. Rather, it is self-consciousness. Sian Beilock’s research has shown that impaired performance in high-pressure athletic situations is associated with heightened activity in parts of the brain that are linked to self-awareness. What happens is that the athlete’s feeling of being under pressure directs her attention toward internal processes such as body movements and anxious thoughts, and this attentional shift undermines performance in a number of ways.

First, self-consciousness distracts athletes from the task of the moment such that, as Beilock puts it in Choke, they “are not devoting enough attention to what they are doing and rely on simple or incorrect routines.” This is precisely what happened to triathlete Siri Lindley in her final chance to qualify for the Olympics in Dallas, where she forgot to execute the rudimentary measure of drinking to stay hydrated on a very hot day — a beginner’s error that even most beginners don’t commit.

Siri Lindley in action during the ITU World Cup Triathlon at Tiszaujvaros, Hungary. Photo: Phil Cole/ALLSPORT

Pressure-induced self-consciousness also harms performance by reducing movement efficiency. Athletes move more efficiently when their attention is focused on key features of their environment rather than on their own body. A 2005 study conducted at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas and published in the Brain Research Bulletin found that college students shot basketball free throws more accurately when they were asked to concentrate on the back of the rim than they did when they were told to focus on snapping the wrist when the ball left their hand (an element of “good technique”). Psychological pressure has a similar effect, inducing a state of self-consciousness that effectively shifts the athlete’s attention from the “rim” to the “wrist.”

Endurance sports do not require the same kind of coordination that games like basketball do, but self-consciousness is known to reduce movement efficiency in running, swimming, and other forward-motion activities. In a 2011 experiment, scientists at the University of Münster in Germany observed that runners consumed more energy at a fixed pace when they thought about their body movements or their breathing than they did when they concentrated on the external environment.

Yet another way in which pressure-induced self-consciousness sabotages performance is unique to endurance sports, and it is explicable only in terms of the psychobiological model of endurance performance. Simply put, self-consciousness increases perceived effort. Racing in a state of pressure-induced self-consciousness is like fire walking while giving your full attention to the painful heat in your feet rather than focusing on where you’re going. As an athlete, you’re much better off directing your attention externally, to the task at hand, which distracts you to some degree from your suffering, allowing you to push a little harder.

The negative effect of an internal attentional focus on perceived effort and endurance performance was demonstrated in a clever study conducted by Lars McNaughton at England’s Edge Hill University and published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. Trained cyclists completed 16.1-kilometer indoor cycling time trials under three different conditions. During one time trial, each cyclist watched a video screen displaying an avatar representing him and showing his progress toward the finish line. In a second time trial, the subjects watched a screen on which their avatar raced against a virtual competitor. In the remaining time trial, the screen was blank. McNaughton found that the cyclists performed best when they were engaged in a virtual race and did worst in the blank-screen condition.

These differences in performance corresponded to differences in the athletes’ attentional focus. They reported being most internally focused when the screen was blank, offering no visual stimulation. Their attentional focus was most external in the battle of avatars, which drew the athletes into forgetting themselves and becoming absorbed in their task. Ratings of perceived effort were no higher in the avatar-versus-avatar trial than they were in the blank-screen trial despite a 3 percent difference in power output, indicating that an internal attentional focus reduced performance by making the same intensity of pedaling feel harder, while an external focus had the opposite effect.

Choking was not a factor in this study because the participants felt little pressure. But it proved that self-consciousness reduces endurance performance, and we know from other research that perceived pressure promotes self-consciousness, especially in certain vulnerable individuals. This vulnerability is not necessarily inborn, but may result from traumatic experience. For example, people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder exhibit heightened activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, known as the brain’s internal critic, when performing under pressure.

Some athletes are especially prone to negative thinking in competition. Athletes who lack self-belief, as Siri Lindley once did, have a harder time tamping down their internal critic in races. Many of the negative thoughts that such athletes experience issue from excessive focus on the desired outcome. All athletes begin their races wanting to achieve their goals, but those lacking self-belief are so anxious about their goal that it pulls their attention away from the task of the moment. They feel that if only they can achieve their goal, then they will have self-belief to carry into the next race. But it doesn’t work like that. The self-belief has to come first.

So where does it come from? It comes from letting go, as illustrated by Siri’s surrender to the intense daily challenges of new coach Brett Sutton’s training methodology, where she had to redirect her energy from dreaming to doing, and changed her focus from winning to being fit and fast and strong. Counterintuitive though it may be, caring a little less about the result of a race produces better results. An athlete who believes in herself whether she succeeds or fails is able to put her goal out of mind and race in the moment, and to race in the moment — in flow — is to race better. The athlete who lacks self-belief can gain it by consciously pushing her goals and the worries that surround them out of her mind and teaching herself to stay focused on the task of the moment throughout the training process that leads up to the next big race. The progress that issues from this head-down, “just do it” approach cultivates self-belief in a way that no amount of visualizing the perfect race can.

Siri learned this lesson through her work with Brett Sutton. Self-belief cannot be manufactured through obsessive yearning toward one’s goals or through the elimination of all “distractions.” In fact, it requires the opposite: an empty mind and total immersion in the process that builds the proof of potential that is the only solid foundation for true self-belief.

“Real confidence comes from real results and real training,” Siri told writer Timothy Carlson in 2014. “It must be truthful.”

Adapted from How Bad Do You Want It? by Matt Fitzgerald with permission of VeloPress.

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