Once anxiety extends its tendrils into the sportsman or woman's mind, the results can be disastrous. But what causes this choking under pressure?
There are two rival theories - one states that anxiety is so distracting it stops performers from being able concentrate on what they're doing. The other argues that anxiety causes the sportsman or woman to become overly conscious of their movements - skilled actions that had become automatic are made excruciatingly explicit, thus causing the athlete to regress to their standard as a novice.
Now Daniel Gucciardi and James Dimmock have tested these rival theories with twenty experienced Australian golfers, who have handicaps ranging from 0 to 12. The golfers performed putts in three conditions - they either had to focus on three words that represented components of their technique (e.g. "arms", "weight", "head"); focus on three irrelevant words, for example three colours; or focus on just one word that summed up their putting action, such as "smooth".
They did all this in a low anxiety context first, and then the whole thing was repeated with the pressure cranked up by the offer of cash rewards for the best performances. Would the anxiety of the high pressure context cause the golfers' performance to deteriorate?
The added anxiety only caused the golfers' performance to deteriorate when they were focusing on three words that represented components of their putting action. By contrast, their under-pressure performance actually improved slightly when they were thinking of irrelevant words or just one word that holistically represented their action.
These findings appear to support the idea that anxiety affects performance by causing people to think too much about their actions, not because it is distracting per se. If anxiety was a problem by virtue of being distracting, then having to focus on three irrelevant words should have compounded the problem just as much as three words related to the putt.
Overall, the golfers' performance was most accurate when they focused on a single, holistic word that represented their putting action. The researchers said this finding, though preliminary, suggests expert performers should be encouraged to "adopt more global, higher-level cue words that collectively combine the mechanical process of their technique, which may act as either a schematic cue or a conscious distraction."
Gucciardi, D.F. & Dimmock, J.A. (2008). Choking under pressure in sensorimotor skills: Conscious processing or depleted attentional resources? Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9, 45-59.