Miracle at the New Meadowlands

In sports, a choke is the failure of a sportsperson or team in a game in a situation where maintaining their performance is highly important.

This can occur in a game or tournament that they are strongly favored to win, or in an instance where they have a large lead that they squander in the late stages of the event. It can also refer to repeated failures in the same event, or simply infer an unexpected failure when the event is more important than usual.

Most athletes experience physical and mental changes during stages of increased tension in competition. They may change their strategy as a coping mechanism, and play more cautiously as a result. In instances where this strategy fails, a player or team many lose confidence to the point of panic, where they are incapable of completing the most rudimentary of tasks. Choking in sport can be considered a form of ‘analysis paralysis.’

Symptoms of choking may include, tightening up of the muscles, an increase level of anxiety, and a decrease in self-confidence. The ‘explicit monitoring theory’ provides an explanation for athlete’s under-performance at the precise moment they need to be at their best. ‘Pressure raises self-consciousness and anxiety about performing correctly, which increases the attention paid to skill processes and their step-by-step control. Attention to execution at this step-by-step level is thought to disrupt well-learned or proceduralized performances.’

‘Distraction theory’ was first suggested to explain under-performance in pressure situations. It posits that pressure creates a dual task situation which draws attention away from the task at hand. Attention is then focused towards irrelevant stimuli such as worries, social expectations, and anxiety. Research has found that distraction theory is supported in situations where working memory is used to analyze and make decisions quickly. Short term memory is used to maintain relevant stimuli and block irrelevant information as it relates to the task at hand.

‘Self-focus theory’ predicts a decrease in performance is due to attention being shifted to movement execution. Any combination of factors that increase the importance of performing is considered performance pressure. There is more focus on the motor components of performance, consciously controlling movements with step-by-step control.

‘Processing efficiency theory’ (PET) argues that anxiety causes a shift in an athlete’s attention towards thought of performance consequences and failure. An increase in worry decreases attention resources. According to PET, athletes put extra effort into their performance when under pressure, to eliminate negative performance. Processing efficiency is effected by negative anxiety more than performance effectiveness. Efficiency being the relationship between the quality of task performance and the effort spent in task performance.

‘Attentional control theory’ (ACT) is an extension to PET, hypothesizing that choking results from individuals shifting attention to irrelevant stimuli. Stress and pressure cause an increase in the stimulus-driven system and a decrease in the goal-directed system. Disruption of balance between these two systems causes the individual to respond to salient stimuli rather than focusing on current goals. ACT identifies the basic central executive functions inhibition and shifting, which are affected by anxiety. Inhibition is the ability to minimize distractions caused from irrelevant stimuli. Shifting requires adapting to changes in attentional control, shifting back and forth between mental sets due to task demands.

According to the ‘attentional threshold model,’ a performance decrement is caused by exceeded threshold of attentional capacity. This model combines both the self-focus models and the distraction models. The combination of worry and self-focus together causes a decrease in performance. Attentional Threshold Model suggests that choking is a complex process involving cognitive, emotional and attentional factors.

Causative factors in choking may include, individual responsibility, expectations, poor preparation, self-confidence, physical/mental errors, important games/moments and opponent’s actions. ‘Fear of negative evaluation’ (FNE) is a psychological characteristic that increases anxiety under high pressure. It creates apprehension about others evaluations or expectations of oneself. FNE is similar to ‘motive to avoid failure’ (MaF): the need to avoid negative evaluation from others, avoid mistakes and avoid negative comparison to other players.

The presence of parents, coaches, media, or scouts can increase pressure, leading to choking. An athlete wants to perform their best while being observed and trying not to make any mistakes increases the amount of pressure they are under. Poor performance under pressure is associated with high self-conscious individuals. An individual with high self-consciousness focuses their attention to thoughts relating to the task (i.e., ‘did I do that step right?’) and to outside concerns (i.e., ‘will people laugh if I mess up?’). Individuals with low self-consciousness can direct their attention outward or inward because self-concerns do not dominate their thinking.

According to the ‘individual zone of optimal functioning’ (IZOF) theory, an instance of the earlier-discovered Yerkes–Dodson effect (which dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point), an individual’s best performance is when their anxiety level is in a certain optimal zone. Too much or too little anxiety can lead to performance decrement. For example a lacrosse goalie with low arousal may focus more on whether or not a college scout is watching them, rather than focusing on the opponent who is about to score on them. A lacrosse goalie with high arousal may focus more on the opponents stick position instead of the opponents body position, causing them to step in the wrong direction.

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