How Modern Neuroscience Research Can Help Athletes Perform Under Pressure

Tuesday, November 17th, 2020

As athletes, we’ve all experienced a high-pressure situation at some point in our careers. For some, the stress of the situation has no effect on their performance. But for most people, these situations can lead to athletes choking under the pressure.

 

One type of situation that specifically leads to athletes choking is when there is a significant amount of time leading up to a routine play, shot, or throw that gives the athlete time to think. It may be a birdie putt to stay alive in a golf match, a serve on game point, or maybe a game-winning field goal attempt after the other coach attempted to ice your kicker with a time out. 

Whatever the sport, there are always going to be situations where things slow down and you can start to think about the upcoming situation. 

 

Time to think, you may say, is a good thing to have. The pressure is on, and your performance in the upcoming moment matters a lot, so you want to make sure you get it right. However, modern sports psychology research has revealed that time to think is actually detrimental to optimal athletic performance in these situations, and here’s why. 

 

In Sian Beilock’s revolutionary book Choke, she outlines what her research on performing under pressure has revealed about humans in these high-stakes situations. In short, athletes choke because they try to over-control. And they over-control because they worry about a host of different things like how important the game is, what others will think, and even how it could go wrong. They worry about these things because their performance is either important to them or because something is at stake. 

 

As humans, this is natural. We are hardwired to be wary of threats in our environment, and a high-pressure situation is exactly that. Our worries trigger our conscious brain to take control of the muscle movement because we perceive the situation as highly important to us and therefore we want to exercise control. This is exactly why we choke.“Paralysis by analysis occurs when you attend too much to activities that normally operate outside conscious awareness,” or in other words, you attempt to consciously control a task that is best performed via subconscious processes. 

 

When we start to learn a new skill, we need to devote our brain’s working memory to the task. Our working memory can be thought of as the cognitive horsepower needed to carry out the action we are trying to learn. Taking golf, for example, a beginner golfer may hear from her instructor, “Okay good, now keep your shoulders square on the backswing” followed by “Okay you got that, now make sure you rotate your back foot as you swing through.” 

There are dozens or even hundreds of little pieces of skill that must be learned one at a time in order to perform the full movement correctly. Each additional aspect requires your working memory and conscious awareness to implement the new piece. 

 

As time (and practice) goes on, however, the movement becomes more grooved into our brain’s internal process for performing the skill and our working memory is no longer needed to execute it correctly. In sports psychology, we know that those complex motor skills are driven by procedural memory – knowledge that resides in brain networks such as the basal ganglia and motor systems. These regions operate outside of the prefrontal cortex, the conscious area of our brain that contains our working memory. This motor learning process explains why most adults do not need to think about how to walk or how to ride a bike, because they just do it. These skills are ingrained in our subconscious memory systems and do not require attention or working memory to perform. 

 

So, what makes conscious control over learned movements detrimental to our performance? As Dr. Beilock explains, “people attempt to control execution in order to ensure success, but this can disrupt normally fluid movement patterns, making them more rigid, coupled together, and error-prone.” Increasing our awareness to the task at hand actually leads to the opposite intended effect — choking under pressure. 

 

There is a wealth of data to support this claim. Inside Beilock’s Human Performance Lab in Chicago, Illinois, she ran a study in 2002 assessing highly skilled soccer players’ dribbling performance under two conditions. In one, they were instructed to pay attention to the side of their foot that was making contact with the ball. Normally, a highly skilled soccer player would not be consciously aware of their foot as they dribble, so this instruction effectively caused the group to become aware of their movements. In the other, they were given no instruction at all. 

The result: When the players were told to be aware of their foot, they dribbled slower and made more errors than when they were given no instructions. As Beilock puts it, “paying attention to specific steps of what you are doing can be detrimental if, under normal conditions, these steps are not under your conscious control.” 

 

In a similar sports psychology study, Division I baseball players were instructed to be aware of whether their bat was moving upwards or downwards during batting practice in a hitting simulator. Much like the soccer players, they did significantly worse than when they were given no instruction at all. When the researchers looked back at the study, their analysis of swing biomechanics revealed that the timing of different swing components was off because of the players’ attention to their movements. 

 

So how can sports psychologists prevent athletes from choking under pressure? There are many strategies that athletes can implement to improve performance under stress. All of these outlined by Beilock have a common goal in mind: preventing the prefrontal cortex from regulating previously learned movements. The key for you as an individual is to find the one(s) that work best for you. Try some out, modify them, change them — do whatever you feel helps you to remain fluid in your movement. 

 

One of our favorite strategies at Premier Sport Psychology is to distract my attention away from trying to control my movements by focusing my consciousness on something productive or neutral. At the free throw line in basketball, I’ve had success by counting numbers in my head to allow my muscle movements to flow naturally. “8, 6(dribble), 9, 2 (spin), 7 (shot)!” 

 

For a soccer, softball, or baseball player, perhaps focusing your attention on the spot you want to place the ball would be the best way to distract you from thinking about your movements. Again, it’s important to find what works best for you.

Another tip Beilock offers is “Don’t slow down.” As Nike’s motto puts it, Just Do It. You’ve practiced the skill thousands of times, so there’s no need to think about how you’re doing it to get it right. Speeding up your approach to the movement can be very effective in eliminating that self-questioning. You can also get used to the stress of a high-pressure situation by actively trying to replicate that pressure in a practice setting. Similar to traditional exposure therapy, exposing yourself to stressful situations before they arise in competition increases your ability to deal with them. You can do this by self-imposing a certain negative outcome for a practice activity. For example, a tennis player may mandate that she has to run a one-court suicide if her next serve goes out in a training session. Of course, for this to work, you would need to consistently adhere to your training plan in order to truly feel the pressure. 

 

An alternative way to busy your prefrontal cortex during a movement is to come up with a short mantra that you can say to yourself as you perform the skill. If you’re a golfer, you may say “smooth” as you hit the ball, which allows your focus to be on the spoken words and not the mechanics of the stroke. 

 

A final, more general strategy sports psychologists recommend is to focus on the positives and let go of the negatives of your performance. A lot of times, the outcomes we think about as athletes are often exactly the outcomes that transpire. If you’re taking a penalty kick and think about all the different ways you could miss it instead of thinking about all the different ways you could make it, you’re most likely going to miss because that is the signal your brain is sending to your body. 

 

To reiterate, these strategies are helpful for situations in your sport when you’re performing a highly practiced skill and there are time and pressure. Keep in mind that these tips would most likely be detrimental to performance in live play, fast-paced situations where quick thinking is critically important to your success. Try out some of these strategies and see what works best for you! For further mindset training skills and sport psychology tips, check out mindsetprogram.com.

 

Citations:

Banjari, I., Vukoje, I., and Mandić, M. (2014). Brain food: How nutrition alters our mood and behaviour. Hrana u zdravlju i bolesti, 3.  

Beilock, S. L. (2010) Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have it. New York, New York. Free Press.  

Beilock, S.L., Carr, T.H.,  MacMahon, C., Starkes, J.L. (2002). When paying attention becomes counterproductive: Impact of divided versus skill-focused attention of novice and experienced performance of sensorimotor skills. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 8, 6-16.

Gray, R. (2004). Attending to the execution of a complex sensorimotor skill: Expertise differences, choking, and slumps. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 10, 42-54

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