Secret of choking turns out to be concentrating too hard

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Buckling under pressure, or "choking" in American parlance, is a phenomenon that can devastate highly trained athletes – such as, famously, Jana Novotna in the 1993 Wimbledon tennis final – actors, and lawyers at critical moments.

But two psychologists from Michigan State University claim to have solved the mystery of why hardened performers allow defeat to be snatched from the jaws of victory. The researchers wanted to find out whether performers fail because they concentrate too hard when the heat is on, or whether they cannot focus properly on the task in hand.

Sian Beilock and Thomas Carr conclude, in an article published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, that the error is to try too hard. They say that paying too much attention to a well-honed skill may ruin a performance, an idea "that has been borne out by performers who learn to relax".

The pair centred their investigation on golf, and especially on putting. A pool of 54 novice players was split into three groups and trained to a high skill level. One group trained under normal conditions, the second was distracted by having to perform a simultaneous word test on a tape recorder, and the third was made to feel self-conscious by being recorded on film.

When tested later, the three groups putted equally well when not distracted. But when told that money was at stake, the performance of the filmed group improved while the other two deteriorated.

Ms Beilock said: "Adapting to an environment where one is forced to attend to performance from the initial stages of learning may provide immunisation against the negative effects of performance pressure."

Training people to perform in the spotlight, or taking their mind off a well-honed task by repeating a word, or singing a song, may help, the authors say.