Why do we choke?
Photo: Dodgerton Skillhouse. Source: Morguefile
It’s the what every performer dreads. Nothing seems to go right. Your feet feel like lead. Your hands won’t do what you tell them to. You try to focus, but stray thoughts keep breaking in. What’s going on?
Any time we learn a new skill—whether it’s how to play a musical instrument or how to golf or how to drive a car—our minds have to focus intently on coordinating muscles, hand and finger movements, our breathing. The fundamentals require all our concentration. Over time, the execution of these skills moves from our conscious mind to a part of the brain responsible for touch and feel—from explicit to implicit thinking.
This migration allows team athletes to work on strategy, tactics, and coordinating with teammates. It allows us to sip coffee while shifting the manual transmission in our car—something impossible for a novice driver. When we’re learning to drive, we have to focus intently to keep from grinding the gears or stalling out.
When athletes choke, they revert back to explicit thinking. Complex tasks come into sharp focus, and they overwhelm the conscious brain. The switch in focus turns them from experts into beginners.
The antidote, ironically, is to break the cycle of over-thinking. Spend a few minutes relaxing. Consider other more important things —family, relationships, health. The next time you face an important meeting or presentation, remind yourself: “It’s only a meeting. It’s not my life.”
Whether it’s sports or studies or our professional lives, peak performance comes when we allow our near-conscious minds to work. This way, eve brain surgery can be simple.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Chief Investment Officer