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.