How Athletes Perform Under Pressure

What causes skilled and experienced athletes to ‘choke’ under the many pressures of competition? This question, highly relevant in the wake of Paula Radcliffe’s dramatic and high profile collapse during the 2004 Olympic marathon, has been investigated by a team of Australian researchers, who set out to examine the role of self-consciousness and trait (or dispositional) anxiety as predictors of choking in sport.

Choking has been defined as ‘performance decrements under pressure circumstances’ and is thought to occur when a performer focuses in a conscious way on skills that have become automatic, with a detrimental effect on performance.

In the Australian study, 66 student basketball players completed questionnaires designed to measure self-consciousness and sport anxiety before completing 20 free throws under two different conditions: 1. Low pressure – observed only by a research assistant with no consequences attached to performance; 2. High pressure (about one hour later) – videotaped, observed by an audience and with a performance-contingent financial incentive.

The hypothesis was that performance would decline under pressure and that performers displaying high self-consciousness and/or trait anxiety would be most susceptible to choking.

In fact there was an overall decline in performance from the low pressure to the high pressure condition, with a mean score (successful shots out of 20) of 13.56 under low pressure, falling to 12.53 under high pressure.

Of the 66 participants, 35 had a lower score under pressure, seven scored the same and 24 scored better.

When analysing the relationship of selfconsciousness and sport anxiety ratings and free throw scores, the researchers made the following findings:

As expected (but contrary to some previous research) high self-conscious participants were more likely to choke than their low self-conscious counterparts;
This tendency was particularly evident for the private self-consciousness sub-scale (where attention is directed inwards, to private thoughts and feelings, as opposed to public selfconsciousness, where attention is directed to the self as the object of others’ awareness);
In terms of trait anxiety, only somatic trait anxiety (measuring physical feelings, eg jitteriness) was a significant predictor of choking.
Because a significant minority of the participants actually improved their performance under pressure, the researchers believe that a good deal could be learned by studying athletes who are ‘choking-resistant’.

‘Finally,’ they conclude, ‘intervention studies are needed to examine whether athletes can be inoculated to choking effects and to test the efficacy of choking recovery strategies. Specific techniques to ameliorate choking would most likely benefit the many athletes who experience choking and hence suffer diminished enjoyment or social anxiety.’

J Sci Med Sport 2004; 7:2:174-185

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