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Why Do Athletes Choke?

Sometimes the pressure is just too much for the brain to handle.
(Photo: art4all/Shutterstock)

(Photo: art4all/Shutterstock)

There were 17 seconds to play in game five—the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder knotted at two games apiece in the Western Conference semifinals. The visiting Clippers led by two as Chris Paul received an inbounds pass. With OKC’s Russell Westbrook approaching, Paul could've stopped in his tracks and curled his body over the ball, letting Westbrook foul him. As an 85.5-percent free-throw shooter, it seemed an obvious choice for Paul, never one to take inordinate risks.

That reputation is what makes what happened next so confusing. Instead, Paul dribbled toward the sideline and jumped in the air. Maybe he was attempting a 65-foot shot. Or maybe he was just trying to jump past Westbrook and pass the ball up court. Whatever it was, it didn't work out: Westbrook stripped the ball, sending it careening toward mid-court, where one of his teammates snatched it and drove to the hoop to tie the game.

Fans were baffled. Paul made another costly mistake in the final seconds, and the Clippers went on to lose the game. In the post-game press conference, the veteran point guard looked equally befuddled. A few analysts said he had irrational confidence, a trait often attributed to basketball players. But irrational confidence doesn’t develop overnight, and Paul has never been considered irrationally confident before.

"One thing a player has to learn is that choking in a situation does not mean that he should avoid taking on a high-pressure situation in the future. Instead, he needs to put himself in lots of high-pressure situations to practice overcoming the negative consequences of stress."

This wasn’t just a series of untimely mistakes—this was a complete choke. A bad pass in the second quarter is a mistake; hitting the rim on a late-game free throw is a mistake. Doing something completely uncharacteristic in a high-pressure situation is choking. Scientists offer a different explanation for why it happens—and amazingly, it implies that last year’s choke might even prove beneficial to Paul’s playoff prospects.

“When people experience extreme pressure there are two things that happen that can cause choking,” Dr. Art Markman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas-Austin, who has studied NBA players, tells me over email. The first effect is on the person’s ability to analyze the situation. At any given moment, there is a certain amount of information you can think about. Psychologists call this working memory. Under stress, our working memory capacity decreases. In terms of sports, this can make it difficult for players to keep track of critical aspects of the game situation, Markman says.

College basketball fans will never forget this happening to Chris Webber and the University of Michigan in the 1993 NCAA championship game. The Wolverines were playing the University of North Carolina. In the last five minutes of the game, Michigan’s Fab Five choked, culminating in Webber trying to call a timeout when the team had no timeouts left. That sent UNC to the foul line, where they secured the win.

“Once you lose track of the game situation, it is easy to start doing things that make no sense,” Markman says. In Paul’s case, he didn’t seem able to process that there was more time on the shot clock than the game clock, and he could’ve burned time or drawn the foul for the (likely) win.

The second thing that happens to the pressure-seized brain is that players start over-analyzing. “A player who shoots a bad free throw or makes an errant pass is probably paying too much attention to his movements rather than allowing them to happen fluidly as he has practiced them for so many years,” Markman says. “Most skilled movement by athletes is so well practiced that it can (and should) be done without paying attention to it.”

THIS CONCEPT HAS BEEN around since at least 1984, when Roy Baumeister showed that people try to consciously control their actions under pressure, but “consciousness does not contain the knowledge of these skills, so that it ironically reduces the reliability and success of the performance.” A handful of studies have since found that over-thinking disrupts the ability to perform routine skills, and throws off balance, timing, and flexibility. "Something about paying attention to what you’re doing makes it not work right,” concluded a 2012 University of Birmingham study.

This lack of muscle control under pressure is known as focal dystonia. Studying golfers, who often call it “the yips,” Arizona State University sports psychologist Debbie Crews found that under pressure, the neurons on the left side of the brain fire off more frequently than those on the right side. The left side controls analytical thinking; the right controls coordination. The hyperactivity on the left side indicates that when athletes are choking, it’s because they are over-analyzing, to the detriment of their physical abilities. Under normal conditions, when they are performing at or above their average, the neurons on each side show more balanced firing patterns.

Why Paul, an otherwise great, consistent point guard, choked this time, and not under all of the pressure situations he’s faced previously, is hard to understand. Why did Greg Norman twice choke in the Masters, after years of success under pressure? What about Bill Buckner in the World Series? Dan Jansen in the 1992 Winter Olympics? The whiz-kids who choke in the National Spelling Bee each year?

Scientists have tried to recreate these situations, but there’s no lab setting that will compare to the real thing. What they can tell us is that, eventually, just about everyone faces pressure that proves too much for their brains to handle. For some of us, we just haven’t seen the threshold yet. For Paul, it seems to have come in the final seconds of game five.

Because it’s hard to recreate these situations, it’s hard to prepare for them. But, Markman added, “One thing a player has to learn is that choking in a situation does not mean that he should avoid taking on a high-pressure situation in the future. Instead, he needs to put himself in lots of high-pressure situations to practice overcoming the negative consequences of stress.”

Players like LeBron James, and Michael Jordan before him, Markman wrote, have “learned to use the energy to elevate their game rather than allowing that arousal to turn into stress and create bad outcomes.”

So come the 2015 playoffs, 2014’s failure might be just what Chris Paul needed.