Now that football season has started again- Have you ever wondered why you see so many professional kickers miss “easy” field goals? Their brains may be to blame: Thinking too hard could cause you to choke under pressure, says new research from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The study found that your explicit memory, or step-by-step thought process, can muddle your implicit memory (your tool for remembering how to do things automatically) and negatively affect performance. For example, if you try to remember all the steps to riding a bike while pedaling, you’ll quickly be in the bushes. But hop on and start cycling without a second thought, and you’ll coast away easily.
So when athletes find themselves in high-pressure situations—like getting ready for a Beam Routine or a Vault they MUST MAKE—they’re more likely to let their explicit memory interfere and screw up their performance, even though they’ve aced the same feat in the past.
It’s a sick paradox of life: The bigger the payoff, the more likely you are to choke. In the study, as participants played a virtual target game, researchers offered cash rewards before each trial. Lower amounts ($25, $50) yielded better performance. But as the cash inched closer to $100, performance suffered. It’s not fear of missing a putt or blowing the presentation that causes you to choke, but fear of losing a potentially lucrative reward.
The fix: Next time they’re in a tight spot and everyone is watching—say, they need to nail a Beam Routine — have them take a breath and remember how they’ve kicked butt before. Look back on past successes and figure out why they went right. It will give them confidence and remind them that, yes, they once nailed it and can do it again.
Some other helpful hints
- – Stay present. Picturing future ramifications or rewards distract from the task at hand. Instead, narrow your focus. Forget about the overall situation. Nothing else should (or does) matter.
- -Think of the past. Look back on past successes and figure out why they went right. It will give you confidence and be a good reminder that, yes, you once nailed it and can do it again.
- – Practice under pressure. It’s hard to replicate the feeling of a do-or-die moment, but the more you feel comfortable in awkward or high-pressure settings, the steadier you’ll be on the big day.
- -Breathe. Count to four as you inhale deeply, hold the breath for another 4 seconds, and then exhale slowly. Repeat. This will help you relax, regain control of your emotions, and refocus your attention on what’s important.
- – Aim your mind. Direct your thoughts on to the task at hand, not the distractions. Focus only on what you want to accomplish, not on what you’re worried might go wrong.
- – Pre-meet rituals (NOT the crazy kind that requires you sacrificing a chicken). Develop a pre-performance routine that you’ll follow on meet day— Following this routine when the pressure’s on keeps negative thoughts from creeping into the execution process.
- -Be prepared. A lack of preparation opens the door for anxiety. The more you practice and the better you understand what you have to do, the more confident you’ll feel when it’s time to perform.
- – Alter your perspective. Peak performers see pressure as an opportunity to push themselves to another level, not as an opportunity to stumble. Remember a time when you nailed this, Focus on that moment and tell yourself that you ARE GOING TO KICK ASS.