Choking, Defined

This blog post is Part 1 of a 4-part blog series featuring the work of University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock.

A recent podcast on the website Brain Science Podcast contains a wealth of information on the phenomena of choking while under pressure. Ginger Campbell, MD, interviews University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, Ph.D., author of the book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.

Beilock runs the University of Chicago’s Human Performance Lab, which she says allows her “to ask questions about how people get good at what they do.” She has studied the concept of choking, which she defines as “suboptimal performance—poorer performance than you would have in a non-stressful situation.”

Obviously this happens often in the sports arena. Beilock mimics a stressful playing field in the Human Performance Lab’s putting green. Very skilled golfers spend time practicing their putting both under no duress and under stressful situations at the lab. How does she add stress to the scene? “We offer them money for peak performance, we sometimes bring in their teammates to have them watch, or tell them their teammates will be coming in—and we try and induce some of the types of responses that these athletes might have in a real do-or-die situation.”

What happens when a player chokes? According to Beilock and her research, “emotions and anxieties compromise the brain systems that would otherwise be used to perform well.”

We have all fumbled the big play in a vital match or game. Join us for Part 2 of this blog series to learn the fascinating whys behind choking. As usual, the human body never fails to amaze us.

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