We’ve all seen athletes fall apart under pressure. Years of practice and technique vanish into a blur of panic and failure. It’s called “choking” and researchers have discovered people are most vulnerable when they over-think their actions, not when they’re distracted.

Researchers from Michigan State University recruited 54 students, all novice golfers, and divided them into three groups. The students were given lessons in putting, but each group was taught in a slightly different way.

The first group was distracted throughout the training. The subjects had to listen to a tape of a series of words and pick out a “target” word each time they heard it. The second group was put under pressure by being videotaped and told the tapes would be viewed by golf professionals. The third group learned how to putt in a neutral environment in which no external pressures were presented.

After a practice session (approximately 300 putts each), researchers monitored the students in a high-pressure situation. The students were assigned partners and told they would each win a cash award if both improved their performance.

Those who trained in the neutral and videotaped settings performed at a lower level under pressure. The subjects who trained in the distracted environment improved, apparently more used to the high-pressure situation.

“The bottom line of our study,” said Sian Beilock, researcher at Michigan State University, “is that in high-level athletics—where skills become automatic with practice—a pressure situation may prompt you to think too much about what you’re doing. You may break down the skills . . . and bring yourself to a lower performance level.” Beilock suggests using distraction techniques, singing a song or focusing on a particular word, to prevent over-thinking and ruining your performance.

This study was originally published by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (December 2001).

Reported by Cynthia Roth

IDEA PERSONAL Trainer april 2002