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The Mind of a Champion

Going in to the 2012 Olympics, gymnast McKayla Maroney was considered to be the best vaulter in the world. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that McKayla would win the Olympic gold medal. After contributing a nearly perfect vault to help her team win the gold medal, she was ready to do it again for event finals. She did her first vault and took a hop that would likely cost her 3/10 of a

mckayla maroneypoint. Nothing major, but she knew that she could do better. When she went back to the end of the runway and prepared for her second vault, all McKayla wanted to do was to stick the landing like she had done so many times in practice. She wanted it so badly that she overthought what should have been automatic, she did not rotate enough, and she ended up landing on her butt, causing a full point to be deducted. McKayla choked, costing her the Olympic gold medal.

Mental toughness is a key aspect in all sports. Every athlete knows that no matter how strong you are, how skilled you are, or how much time you have put into practice, when you are in a pressure situation, it all comes down to how mentally tough you are. It is one of the most frustrating things as an athlete to mess up on a skill that you can normally do in your sleep, especially when that one mistake costs you the game or competition.

There are two mainmind of a champ theories that could explain why choking occurs. The first is called the conscious processing theory. This theory suggests that pressure causes athletes to pay more attention to the individual steps in performing a task when normally, that particular task should be done effortlessly and automatically. Automatic processes develop over time and it takes practice before a skill can go from being controlled to automatic. Once a process has become automatic, it requires very little attention to complete. When an athlete is under pressure and devotes more attention to a task, the automaticity of it is disrupted, making mistakes more likely. In volleyball, for example, serving is one of the first skills that people learn and once a player has reached the collegiate, or even just high school level, it becomes an automatic process that can be done without thinking about each and every step (our coach could even serve with his eyes closed). But, when a player goes back to serve and their team is down 23-24, they feel so much pressure to get the serve in, that often they overthink it, increasing their risk of missing the serve.

The second theory is called the distraction theory and it suggests that when performing under pressure, the athlete becomes unable to block out irrelevant thoughts. They will attempt to perform a task but their minds will be filled with thoughts such as “if I don’t win this point, everything is over and my team is going to hate me” or “if I mess up, I’m going to lose and all of my hard work will have gone to waste”. This is especially detrimental in sports that require a lot of strategy while playing and also in sports that require precise technique.

There has also been research done with the chemical systems in the brain and and how they impact choking under pressure. Researchers have found that dopamine sensitivity can impact choking and that athletes who are more sensitive to dopamine are more likely to choke under pressure. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain that controls movement, emotion, memory and even risk taking. When dopamine levels increase, alertness and performance also increase, but when dopamine levels reach a certain point, the opposite happens. If dopamine levels become too high, memory and movement suffer, inhibiting performance.

strong brain            In an attempt to explain this choking phenomenon, and prove the two theories, Bijleveld and Veling conducted research with tennis players. The researchers recruited 36 tennis players, all of who had competed at the regional or national level at some point in their tennis career. The participants were then asked to complete two tasks. The first task was the Operational Span Task (AOSPAN), which is used to measure working memory. Working memory is the system that holds information long enough for you to carryout a task. During the AOSPAN, the participant was asked to solve arithmetic problems while also trying to remember letters that they were shown. The arithmetic problems ensured that the participant could not repeat the letters in their head in an attempt to commit the letters to short term memory; therefore it truly measured working memory and not short-term memory. The next task that the participants were to complete was the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART), which is used to measure dopamine system sensitivity. Basically, the BART test measures how much of a risk-taker the participant is. The participant is given a virtual balloon and they have to blow it up as big as they want, until it pops. The bigger the balloon gets, the more money the participant can earn, but if it pops, all of the money is lost. After both of these tasks were complete, the researchers looked at match scores for the 36 tennis players and computed a choking index (CI). To calculate the choking index, the researchers would average the difference in games between the participant and their opponent (GD) for decisive sets (sets 2 and 3), then non-decisive sets (set 1). A high CI means that the participant performed better in decisive sets than non-decisive sets and a low CI means that the participant performed worse in decisive sets than non-decisive sets.

In comparing the AOSPAN, BART and CI scores, the researchers found that those with greater working memory capacity are able to perform better in decisive sets, and that those who are more sensitive to dopamine perform tennisworse in decisive sets. The interesting thing is that in another article (see blog post here), researchers came to the opposite conclusion. This article found that those with higher working memory are more prone to cracking under pressure because they are more likely to shift their attention to the pressure of the game, as opposed to just focusing on the game. Either way, it is clear that everyone has the potential to choke under pressure, even the best athletes in the world who seem to be flawless when it comes to mental toughness. All athletes know that choking in a game or meet isn’t fun, no matter what the stakes are. Whether it’s the Olympic games, or just a scrimmage, losing sucks and it’s especially bad when you choke on something that you can normally do with ease.


Bijleveld, E., & Veling, H. (2014). Separating chokers from nonchokers: Predicting real-life tennis performance under pressure from behavioral tasks that tap into working memory functioning. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 36(4), 347-356. doi:10.1123/jsep.2013-0051

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  1. December 6th, 2015 at 16:26 | #1

    The idea of choking versus performing well in high pressure situations has always been a fascinating topic to me, and this post provides interesting evidence as to why one may happen over the other. As an athlete myself who has been in these types of situations, I’ve always wondered how the pressure affects my performance. In my experience, it seems as though some athletes actually do better in competitions where they are under pressure, while others seem to choke, like McKayla Maroney did at the 2012 Olympics. Choking is clearly not a fun experience for the athlete, but studying it and learning about it is very interesting.

    The conscious processing theory, which explains why choking might occur, involves attention and automaticity. An automatic process is fast and doesn’t require much effort or attentional resources, while a controlled process is slower and requires more effort and attentional resources. This theory reminds me of the Stroop task model that we learned about in class. In order to complete the Stroop task correctly, the performer has to inhibit the automatic process of reading the word and actively say the color. It seems as though the athletic task in this theory could potentially follow a similar model in which the athletes who are under pressure are in a way inhibiting the automatic process of performing that task and putting more effort into thinking about its individual steps. However, unlike in the Stroop task where inhibiting the automatic process is necessary to complete the task accurately, doing so in the athletic task may increase the likelihood of choking. It is interesting how in the athletic task, the more effortful process (thinking about the individual steps) actually hurts the athlete’s performance. From what I’ve learned in this post, in order to decrease the likelihood of choking, the athlete wants to perform the task automatically while not using a lot of attentional resources. Maybe McKayla Maroney’s performance at the Olympics would’ve been different if she had relied on her automatic processes rather than over-thinking her vault.

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