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Surprising Science

Can Science Explain Why Athletes Choke?

Several scientists share their thoughts on why big athletes sometimes come up short in high-pressure situations. The basic gist: stress causes them to overanalyze.

Most iconic sports moments feature athletes going above and beyond to achieve victory. Kirk Gibson’s 1988 World Series home run. Michael Jordan having the game of his life while suffering from the flu in 1997. Arsenal’s Michael Thomas connecting with a last-minute winner to secure the Premiership in 1989. These moments are most memorable because the athletes involved emerged amidst pressure to achieve legendary triumph.


Equally iconic, though much sadder, are moments when athletes choke on the biggest stage in high pressure situations. Bill Buckner. Chris Webber. Greg Norman. Each of these names lives on in a certain degree of ignominy, one moment of bad play overshadowing otherwise terrific careers. But what was it about those moments that caused these athletes to underperform? Is there a science to choking?

That’s what writer Danielle Elliot sought to answer in her recent article in Pacific Standard. Elliot asked several specialists about high pressure situations and whether there’s a magic bullet sort of reason to explain choking. Dr. Art Markman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas, explained to Elliot how high stress situations affect a person’s working memory, lessening the amount of information the brain can process at once. A second effect of stress is that the brain overcompensates by overanalyzing situations. Under pressure, neurons on the left side of the brain fire more rapidly than those on the right. The left side of the brain handles analytics; the right controls motor skills. This becomes troublesome for an athlete whose prowess relies on muscle memory. 

Elliot’s article, which is a worthy read (and linked again below), addresses the major counter-argument — how come everybody doesn’t choke then? Is it just certain players who fall apart? Do others have the mythical “clutch” gene?

There’s no way to test that, at least not yet, so popular tough-guy (i.e. BS) conjecture about “softness” tends to win out, despite there not being proof for that either. Here’s a theory: maybe a lot of it is just a result of chance and small sample size. Athletes are always operating under pressure. Athletes will inevitably make mistakes. Sometimes it happens when you’re watching, something when you’re not. Sometimes an athlete bumbles through high-pressure stress and becomes Derek Jeter. Other times they’re not as fortunate and become Bill Buckner. Who knows?

Some bouts of choking can almost certainly be chalked up to giving into pressure. The overanalyzation explanation makes a lot of sense in that case.

But then again, other examples may very well just be rough luck.

Read more at Pacific Standard

Photo credit:  Maxisport / Shutterstock


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