Don’t think, move! – The Science of Choking

Athletes are often defined by singular moments. While it takes years of dedication to reach the Olympics or professional ranks, legacies often turn on a series of key chances to succeed. It’s the resounding weight of these make-or-break moments that make choking—performing below your ability in the midst of pressure—so compelling. While choking can have an interpersonal aspect to it (where the interactions between team members reinforces thought and behavior patterns that contributes to collective under-performance), and can also refer to non-physical performance (‘blanking’ on a test you studied for), this article is focused on choking at physical skills. 

First a bit of background. One of the most popular models of motor learning is that of Fitts and Posner[1], which states that we learn movement skills in three stages: cognitive, associative and autonomous. In the cognitive stage our understanding of the movement is very abstract, and mostly linguistic. We sort of ‘talk ourselves through’ how to complete the movement. As we practice more and more, this self talk through the movement slowly becomes associated with the motor commands responsible for us actually moving. For example, when learning to ski, the first few times down the hill you may be repeating to yourself what your legs need to be doing, but by the end of the day you may find yourself enjoying the view, while your legs just do their thing.

These areas, most associated with strategic planning (PFC) and language (Temporal), are also involved for the early stages of motor learning. And while after extensive practice, these regions’ activity decreases, there’s evidence that when pressure is on, an expert’s brain patterns can fall back to those of a novice – overly relying on these regions, causing them to underperform.

Not surprisingly, the brain is responsible for this transition: early in learning, in addition to the core motor network, we see increased prefrontal cortex activity[2] (the ‘newest’— that is, most evolutionarily advanced—part of our brains, involved in many things but in particular conscious, goal-oriented planning), as well as increased activity in the left temporal lobe—the area responsible for our language abilities (hence ‘self talk’). However, as the skill becomes automatized, rather than having the planning and linguistic areas of the brain drive movement planning, brain activity shifts to two areas in particular. Firstly, the right hemisphere of the parietal cortex, an area responsible for helping us understand where we are in space, as well as our ability to form a ‘mental picture’ of something in our heads. And second, the basal ganglia—a subcortical[3] area involved in improving movement execution, as well as our implicit motivation in response to a reward.

So what does this progression—from cognitive to autonomous, or intentional to automatic—have to do with choking? Well, while experts show more right-hemisphere brain activity versus left-hemisphere language processing during movement[4], this pattern breaks down when expert athletes choke. Moreover, many theories of choking behaviour[5] have validated that athletes who choke tend to have their attention shift to ‘self talk’—in the literature referred to as ‘conscious motor processing’— about how they are moving when the pressure is on. Athletes that experience this conscious motor processing tend to choke more often when pressure is on, and as expected, when they do choke, researchers have found more activation in left-hemisphere language areas[6]. Researchers have also found that having people learn movements through written or oral instructions makes them more prone to choking[7]. Moreover, you can even induce choking behavior by shifting an athlete’s attention to language—basketball players told to focus on describing their movement prior to free throw shooting show decreased performance![8]

While fans go to great and bizarre lengths to ‘get under the skin’ of their rival team, they’d be much better served simply up-regulating the left-temporal-lobes of their opponents!

Unfortunately, this knowledge about how the brain works during choking has yet to produce a silver-bullet solution. And while there is some interesting new research out there that attempts to apply these findings in order to prevent choking… I think I’ll save for my next post.

In the meantime, if you find yourself thinking about how you’re moving when doing a skill you’ve done many times, take that as a warning sign that something isn’t right—that a choke may be just around the corner.

Stay tuned for part 2 on choking!



[3] subcortical meaning it evolved before (and is thus below) the cortex