“I’m disappointed. I let the team down. It’s not a representation of who I am and what I can do. I need to work harder the next couple of days.”
That’s what Olympic gold contender Nathan Chen said after placing 17th in the men’s figure skating short program, according to New York Times columnist Juliet Macur.
It was also the perfect definition of a choke.
Choking is not random. It happens when someone performs sub-optimally due to stress. Advances in neuroscience have enhanced our understanding of the choking phenomenon. Different areas of the brain are impacted by stress depending on the situation.
Why Performing a Quadruple Jump Can Be Easier Than Walking
Our team member’s 5-year-old son, who, in an attempt to be funny, or provocative, dismissed each breathtaking jump and spin performed by this year’s set of Olympians as “easy.” His older sister looked incredulously at him and insisted that what each figure skater did was really, really hard. The five year old was adamant. “Walking is way harder.” In a way, he was right.
The Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Chicago studies people in high-pressure situations to better understand why people choke and what can be done to prevent it. Although there are similarities in choking in athletic, academic and business situations, the reasons why stress causes us to choke depends on what we are doing and the type of memory that’s required. (Beilock, 2010).
Working memory involves conscious processing of information that’s carried out in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. We are relying on working memory when we take a test or reason through a new problem.
Procedural memory, or muscle memory, is created through the practice of complex activities over a long time. It involves the areas of the brain that control motor skills outside of conscious awareness.
Working memory is required when we first learn a new complex physical activity, breaking it down to its discrete parts and paying attention to the position of the body. But an activity that has been executed perfectly thousands of times rests in procedural memory.
A great deal of research around choking in athletic situations points to self-presentation (Masagno & Beckmann, 2017; Nieuwenhuys & Oudejans, 2017; Swann, et al., 2017). When performers are concerned about how they are seen they tend to try to control their motions in order to ensure great performances. Fluid performances – or those that are best performed through procedural memory – can deteriorate.
In the book, Choke, Sian Beilock, explained this phenomenon by asking the reader to imagine walking swiftly down the stairs. This is not a problem. However, if you were being watched and told to focus on each bend of your leg and foot fall your flow might be interrupted causing you to trip.
Nathan Chen did not earn a medal at this Olympics but he is the first person to have completed six quadruple jumps in an Olympic competition. After his disappointing short program performance, he went directly to his room and received pep talks from his mom and people on social media. He then decided, without telling anyone, that he would add one more quad to his long program.
“I was like, I’m not going to hold myself back and play it safe,” he said. “I had literally nothing to lose, so if I made a couple of mistakes, so be it.”
Nathan’s story illustrates how important emotional intelligence is and two techniques to avoid choking:
- Don’t dwell. A choke can beget another choke.
Research studies using fMRI reveal the area of the brain responsible for motor control activates when athletes watch their sport - whether it’s their own performances or someone else’s. Elite athletes have a mirror motor network that is believed to enable their bodies to predict what will happen (Beilock, 2010).
A study showed that athletes who viewed their poor performances showed heightened activity in the prefrontal cortexes but reduced activity in the motor cortexes. The athletes were using their working memory to think about what they had done wrong. In other words, they were in their heads. However, athletes who received a reframing intervention consisting of positive talk about their capabilities and what they could do differently had the opposite result (decreased prefrontal cortex and increased motor cortex activity) when watching their poor performances again. They were able to get out of their heads and access the muscle memory.
- Focus on the outcome not the mechanics
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi‘s concept of flow has been the framework used to understand peak performance. New research suggests flow many not be the only concept that completely explains optimal performance (Swann, 2017). Clutch state is similar to flow in that it is characterized by heightened focus and complete absorption in the activity. Although flow is defined as an open goal, clutch is defined by an increase in effort for a specific amount of time to reach a specific goal. Focusing on what to do rather than how to do it can help athletes summon the strength and resolve to meet a challenge allowing them to bypass the prefrontal cortex.
Emotions affect everything we do in direct and indirect ways, whether we are conscious of them or not. With practice and coaching, we can develop emotional intelligence so those areas of the mind needed to focus on the novel problem or perform the well-rehearsed routine are free to just do it.
Dick Button, the two-time Olympic champion posted back-to-back tweets. First, he wrote. “Nathan Chen- it will be interesting to see how he handles the worst disaster in his skating life.” Second, he wrote “Hey Nathan Chen, Beyoncé fell off the stage at a concert and got right back up, so can you.”
Beilock, S. Choke (2010): What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. New York, NY: Free Press
Macur, J. (2018) “Nathan Chen Gets a Different Kind of Reward.” New York Times, Feb 17
Mesagno, C, et al., (2017). Choking Under Pressure: theoretical models and interventions. Current Opinion in Psychology, 16:170-175
Nieuwenhuys A. & Oudejans R. (2017). Anxiety and performance: perceptual-motor behavior in high-pressure contexts. Current Opinion in Psychology, 16:28-33
Swann C., et al., (2017). New directions in the psychology of optimal performance in sport: flow and clutch states. Current Opinion in Psychology, 16:48-53