The psychology and neuroscience of choking (cont.)

By Dan Peterson

As a follow up to last week’s post on the science of choking under pressure, here are two more articles that highlight Sian Beilock’s and other research on the subject.

The first is a short blog post by David Dobbs, which describes Beilock’s lab at the University of Chicago and some of the subtle tricks they play to inspire people to buckle under pressure:

They know how to turn even success against you. When I left my second putt within two inches of the target — the best putt of the day so far — Chase said, “He can’t do that twice.” Then Beilock commented that “ That’s an unusual grip you’ve got there, with your finger along the back” — a not terribly subtle attempt to provoke in me a destructive “explicit monitoring” of my mechanics.

The second is also by Dobbs, and is a longer, feature article on Beilock’s research that centers on baseball.  The article covers a lot of what last week’s post did, as well as some additional ground.  One of the real gems comes when Beilock talks about how athletes really have two processes running at the same time–one physical, the other cognitive–and how conditions that are good for one track may have the exact opposite effect on the other:

Working memory is the crucial mental faculty that briefly retains multiple pieces of unrelated data so you can use or manipulate them. You depend on working memory every time you read a paragraph, learn a new definition, perform a multipart math problem in your head, or try to retain a phone number while you finish a conversation. Working-memory capacity is closely tied to general powers of intellect and decision-making. When it’s not working well, you’re not as sharp

…This working memory failure is a much different mechanism than external monitoring; instead of overmonitoring a physical operation, the athlete or test-taker is poorly attending a mental operation.

…As Beilock notes, this second, cognition-based failure under pressure means “there are at least two things going on, running parallel, almost all the time”: a physical track and a mental track. “And what might disrupt you — what might crunch under pressure — depends on what you’re doing at a particular moment.”

You can jump off the physical track by overmonitoring and fall off the cognitive track through inattention. And distraction greases the physical track and kinks the cognitive. To travel both smoothly requires knowing what to attend to and what not to attend to — or to put it another way, understanding what to distract yourself from (your physical mechanics) and what not to get distracted from (the score, the count, how many time-outs you have left).

This is a vision of athletic performance both alluring and daunting. Sports start to look a lot more like real life — and much more demanding.

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