The Frontal Cortex

Choking

I’ve got an article in the Observer Sports Monthly on athletes and choking, which is adapted from my book:

We call such failures “choking”, if only because a person frayed by pressure might as well not have oxygen. What makes choking so morbidly fascinating is that the performers are incapacitated by their own thoughts. Perry, for example, was so worried about not making a mistake on the 17th that he played a disastrous chip. His mind sabotaged itself.

Scientists have begun to uncover the causes of choking, diagnosing the particular mental differences that allow some people to succeed while others wither in the spotlight. Although it might seem like an amorphous category of failure, their work has revealed that choking is triggered by a specific mental mistake: thinking too much.

The sequence of events typically goes like this: when people get nervous about performing, they become self-conscious. They start to fixate on themselves, trying to make sure that they don’t make any mistakes. This can be lethal for a performer. The bowler concentrates too much on his action and loses control of the ball. The footballer misses the penalty by a mile. In each instance, the natural fluidity of performance is lost; the grace of talent disappears.

Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has helped illuminate the anatomy of choking. She uses golf as her experimental paradigm. When people are learning how to putt, it can seem daunting. There are just so many things to think about. Golfers need to assess the lay of the green, calculate the line of the ball, and get a feel for the grain of the turf. Then they have to monitor their putting motion and make sure that they hit the ball with a smooth, straight stroke. For an inexperienced player, a golf putt can seem unbearably hard, like a life-sized trigonometry problem.

But the mental exertion pays off, at least at first. Beilock has shown that novices hit better putts when they consciously reflect on their actions. The more time they spend thinking about the putt, the more likely they are to hole the ball. By concentrating on their game, by paying attention to the mechanics of their stroke, they can avoid beginner’s mistakes.

A little experience, however, changes everything.

And here’s David Foster Wallace, writing about the utter lack of self-consciousness in elite athletes, and why that allows them to be successful competitors (but leads to terrible memoirs):

All right, so the obvious point: Great athletes usually turn out to be stunningly inarticulate about just those qualities and experiences that constitute their fascination…It’s not an accident that great athletes are often called “naturals,” because they can, in performance, be totally present: they can proceed on instinct and and muscle-memory and autonomic will such that agent and action are one. Great athletes can do this even – and for the truly great ones like Borg and Bird and Nicklaus and Jordan and Austin, especially – under wilting pressure and scrutiny. They can withstand forces of distraction that would break a mind prone to self-conscious fear in two.

The real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real, many veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all.

I really wish DFW were still here.

Comments

  1. #1 Guy
    July 27, 2009

    In the instance of putting, there is probably too much analysis. For example, give a 8 or 9 year old kid a bean bag and ask them to toss it 20 or 25 feet to a hula hoop on the ground. Chances are they will do it well with a few tries. Why? Because their body teaches itself, they just pay attention to the expected event. Thinking about it just gets in the way.

  2. #2 jb
    July 27, 2009

    I happened to catch an interview with Michael Jackosn that aired shortly after his death in which he talked about how he danced and wrote music. With regard to dancing he said that dancers don’t think; they feel the music, they become the music, and he demonstrated. How did he learn specific steps from someone else? He didn’t say but I suspect there was an instructor to mirror, and he said that his father would beat he and his siblings with a belt if they missed a step as they rehearsed. This was years ago when he was very young.
    As to composing he said that he didn’t think ‘I want to write a popular song …’. He said he’d ask himself ‘what’s a good strong bass rhythmn…?’ and then he’d wait. Then driving down the road a few days later say, the beat would come to him.
    Whatever you might think about Michael Jackson as a person he was a consummate artist.

  3. #3 gt
    July 27, 2009

    This saturday, I took a dance class from african contemporary master Vincent Mantsoe. He talked about focusing on letting the spirit flow through your body – you aren’t really dancing until the spirit moves, and much of a dancer’s training is focused on self-conscious form and technique that blocks what he called the spirit or soul. The movement was difficult. It was hard to release at that moment, but I know the feeling. I can see it in great dancers and in athleates like Michael Jordan.

    The Brazialian theater company Lume approaches acting from a purely physical place creating “intension” the actor then directs to the audience. In their training they practice choking – they create games that overload the body and mind until you make a mistake. They do this to increase the performer’s ability to deal with the destructive self-consciousness that comes from being on stage in front of a bunch of people. It works. It creates what feels like another level of self-awareness. I wonder if it’s a bit like what commodity traders feel in a high pressure situation.

  4. #4 Joe
    July 27, 2009

    Malcolm Gladwell had an interesting article in the New Yorker in 2000 about choking compared to panicking. Gladwell said: “Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart.”
    Worth a read, even today.
    http://www.gladwell.com/2000/2000_08_21_a_choking.htm

  5. #5 Roger Bigod
    July 27, 2009

    Hasn’t anyone heard of Zen and the Art of Archery? It’s all about performing v. listening to the inner coach. There’s evidence that Zen meditation enhances the alpha rhythm, but I don’t know if anyone has hooked up electrodes to the crania of archery masters.

    There’s also a paper indicating that high-achieving athletes have very strong cerebral dominance. The theory is that the dominant hemisphere inhibits anxiety originating on the non-dominant side. I have the reference somewhere if anyone is interested this is relevant to matters less frivolous than sports, since victims of PTSD have weak cerebral dominance and this may make them more susceptible to an irruption of panic.

    For some skills, it works the other way. Back in the 50′s or 60′s, a female Go professional’s career was stagnant as she attended to her children, but she dutifully played in the in the required intramural games for professionals. One day her husband, also a professional, came home to find her upset that she had been matched with the great Kitani Minoru, then at the height of his skill. Her husband said “Look, you have no hope of even a respectable showing, so resign yourself to the embarrassment. At least try to salvage a little something from it. Expect to lose, but instead of thinking about your position, try to look at it from Kitani’s point of view and imagine what he’ll do. And look at your position as if you were Kitani and consider how he’d salvage it. At least you’ll get a little something out of it, with less wear and tear on your self-esteem.”

    Being a dutiful woman who followed male instruction, she decided to take his advice. During the game, she found herself noticing new gambits, subtle ways of analyzing she hadn’t thought about since student days, fresh vistas on standard positions. She was grateful to her husband for his suggestion, Kitani for his formidable skill, and so lost herself in the game she didn’t bother to keep the usual mental counts.

    And toward the beginning of the endgame, Kitani resigned.

  6. #6 GMD
    July 28, 2009

    Good post and article. Interesting that you mention this now too. I just read a football blog I like a lot which drew the same connection you did between this and the David Foster Wallace bit. (The blog even plugs your How We Decide book. Prescient I’d say!) Anyway good read.

    http://smartfootball.blogspot.com/2009/07/football-decisionmaking-and-brain.html

  7. #7 joe nickerson
    August 5, 2009

    Kudos on the Wallace reference. He is, indeed, missed. I posted a link to this article on the Wallace-1 board.