Why Do People Choke Under Pressure?

science blog choking

What is it about the big moments that causes pressure? Why is something that you have done thousands of times, on a significantly smaller stage, become incredibly difficult when the pressure mounts? We’ve all been there, whether it be a penalty kick with a game on the line or a test that counts for half the grade in a class. A lot of this pressure has to do with psychology.

When something is incredibly important to you, anything can become difficult. It comes down to this, “Thinking too much about what you are doing, because you are worried about losing the lead or worrying about failing in general.” This is known as “paralysis by analysis.” This occurs when you try to analyze every aspect of what you are doing. While you are hoping to guarantee a successful performance, generally “paralysis by analysis” leads to a botched performance commonly known as choking.

Take a serve in tennis for example. There is a formula to every serve that becomes muscle memory for the player. Everything from the ball toss to the follow through is expected to be one fluid movement. The tennis player can play an entire match just with muscle memory, not having to think about the shot. However, serving for the match at Wimbledon, the process gets tricky. The tennis player will start to analyze how high they toss the ball or when they strike the ball with their racket. This is when the mistakes occur. Muscle memory goes right out the window because of overthinking.

Further analyze this situation with a control group and experimental group. Take shooting a free-throw in basketball for example. The control, being shooting a free-throw under little pressure in a regular game scenario, and the experimental group, being shooting a free-throw in the playoffs with higher pressure. Using the game’s greats, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, as examples, playoff free-throw shooting percentage was lower than regular season in both cases. Bryant dropped from an 85% free-throw shooter in the regular season to 80% in the playoffs for his career, while Jordan dropped from 83% to 79%. While the numbers do not seem like that big of a drop, they are based on thousands of free-throws meaning the difference is somewhat significant.

The stats above are indicative of only two players, but the fact that well-known players regarded as clutch can have a similar drop off in pressure moments is interesting. One interesting study out of Johns Hopkins University found that those who hate losing the most, meaning there is more on the line for them, are more greatly affected by pressure. The study, while observational, investigates the tendency of those who choke to have a greater fear of losing than a desire to win.

With the evidence observed, it appears to all come down to mental viewpoint. If you are driven by a fear of losing, you may incur more pressure. If you incur more pressure, there is a greater likelihood that you will choke.





4 thoughts on “Why Do People Choke Under Pressure?

  1. amp6199

    This post was very informational. It is true, a lot of people melt under pressure, but there’s no way that everyone experiences the same amount of stress under pressure, or else we would never see who the real stars are. Yes, maybe Kobe Bryant’s free-throw percentage went down a little bit during playoffs, but he also scored 81 points during a single game. So what separates the Kobe Bryant’s from the rest of the world? It all depends on how we respond to stress . Those of us that respond to stress that is formed by pressure exhibit something called the challenge state, in which their first response to pressure and stress is to become even more competitive and intense. That’s how we get the people who stand out in our world.

  2. Claire E Going

    Hi Stephen,
    Paralysis by analysis occurs in almost all of our lives and we have all experienced it, so this post hits home for me. I just gave a presentation to my small English class so it shouldn’t have been that nerve-racking, but because the presentation counted for 20% of my grade, I wasn’t able to articulate as well as I did while casually practicing in front of my friends, which greatly affected my grade. If I wasn’t so nervous I would have performed better and got a better grade. Even though I was aware of it the entire time, I could do nothing to change it as hard as I tried. So, to help others who have a fear of public speaking and wish to make it better in order to get better grades, here is a link to some advice to help calm the nerves, therefore not being affected by paralysis by analysis.

  3. Daniel Liam Cavanaugh

    Like the other psychology-based blogs I’ve read, this one is very interesting and has a great topic. With this topic, there could be a lot of interesting possibilities for experiments to use. Even though choking under pressure is a more compelling subject in the context of athletics, this study is important in explaining what type of people choke under pressure, at least in the context of mathematics: http://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/BF03213916. This study states that people with a high working memory capacity are more prone to cracking under pressure than those without that capacity. This may support your very interesting “paralysis by analysis” phenomenon. The concept of “paralysis by analysis” makes me think about why it exists when it is not helpful to humans at all. It seems like something that evolution should have wiped out a long time ago. It was also smart of you to include the difference between fear of losing and the desire to win. I find that whenever I am in a high-pressure situation, I usually do better when I think about winning instead of not losing. It is somewhat paradoxical how wanting to win more can decrease your chances of doing so and that is why this was a good choice for your blog.

  4. Michael Bliss

    This was a very interesting psychological explanation. The study about the basketball players brought some questions to my mind. What would we see if we saw free throw statistics for exhibition or pickup games, games that don’t matter in the team’s record? Would this lack of pressure cause performance to improve, because of less choking, or decrease because of not enough pressure? Is there an ideal amount of pressure that would cause ideal performance? And if so, what kind of experiment could we use to discover this?

Comments are closed.