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April 12, 2021

The science of 'choking'

Bounce.Matthew Syed Have you noticed how tough it is when facing a life-changing job interview? How surreally difficult it is to remember your lines when giving a career-transforming presentation? How your calmness and assurance seem to desert you when on the verge of nailing your biggest sales contract?

If so, you are not alone. Most of us have experienced — at some time or another — the curious phenomenon of “choking.” Sure, the terminology varies from place to place (in basketball it is called “the bricks,” in academic domains it is termed “cracking” and in the UK it is sometimes called “bottling”), but the reality is always the same: a curious kind of personal catastrophe.

We even see choking in the context of love. Meet a relatively plain woman and most single men have no problem being relaxed, funny, discursive and authentic. Meet the woman of your dreams, however, and your mouth dries, your charm evaporates, your patter jars, and you manage to spill your drink on her blouse.

The phenomenon of choking has long fascinated those involved in sports. It is particularly compelling, as well as a little unnerving, to see a world class performer, someone who has spent a lifetime honing a particular skill, suddenly falling apart under pressure. Perhaps the most graphic example involved Greg Norman who went from six up to seven down over the course of the final round of the 1996 U.S. Masters.

The neuroscience of choking is intriguing. When we perform a task with which we are familiar — driving a car, say — we tend to do it without thinking. We are able to drive with other things on our mind, such as what to make for dinner. But consider what happens when we are learning a skill: We must consciously and explicitly monitor what we are doing to build the neural framework supporting the skill.

In effect, experts and novices use two completely different brain systems. Long practice enables experienced performers to encode a skill in implicit memory, and they are able to perform automatically, smoothly, almost subconsciously. But novices use the explicit system, consciously monitoring what they are doing as they build expertise.

Choking occurs, then, when an experienced performer is so desperate to perform well that he inadvertently wrestles conscious control over a task he would normally execute automatically. That is why Norman was so stilted in his final round at Augusta: He was explicitly monitoring a skill (hitting a golf ball, giving a speech) he would normally perform effortlessly.

His problem was not a lack of focus, but too much focus. Conscious monitoring had disrupted the smooth workings of the implicit system. He was a novice again.

The best advice, then, when confronting a life changing moment, whether in sport, work or life is to avoid over-analysis; to free oneself from angst and fear; to face up to the challenge as if it doesn’t really matter that much. This is easier said than done, of course, but it marks the essential psychological difference between those who win and those who choke. As the Nike ad puts it: “Just Do It.”

-- Matthew Syed, author of Bounce, available April 20, 2021 from HarperCollins Canada



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