Medical: Studies probe why people choke in clutch situations

When the typically solid free-throw sinker fails to find net in a close game's waning minutes, when the firm's best deal-sealer falters in the final round of negotiations, when a baseball team's closer becomes a blow-ser in the final inning -- the choke talk begins.

Psychologists and brain scientists have been working for years to understand why talented, competent people don't rise to the occasion in clutch situations.
 
University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Bielock, author of a widely hailed analysis of choking ("Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Tell You About Getting It Right When You Have To") published in 2010, explains over-thinking as "conscious attention to automatized physical operations that destroys the athlete's normal fluidity."
 
But there's always more to learn about the phenomena of "being clutch" --or not -- as several recent reports show.
 
In a paper published last October, Rob Gray of the University of Birmingham in England noted that athletes need to realize they're more apt to choke at a decisive moment. "We think when you're under pressure, that your attention goes inward naturally. And focusing on what you're doing makes you mess up," Gray said of his study, which appeared in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. The next questions are why, and just how, the failure occurs.
 
Gray analyzed specific links between certain physical responses and tense game moments -- movement becomes less fluid, joints tighten, fingers grip a ball or bat tighter, motor control is reduced.
 
If coaches and athletes study such tendencies and identify them individually, they could practice strategies to work around them in advance, he said. So, for instance, a golfer who puts the club handle in a death grip before a crucial stroke might be told to "imagine you have an open tube of toothpaste between your hands," which offers both a remedy and a distraction from performance pressure.
 
Another report, published last fall in the journal PLOS One by researchers at the Yale School of Medicine, showed that players on a winning streak are likely to continue seeing positive outcomes -- at least when it comes to hitting free throws in pro-basketball games.
 
Gur Yaari, a postdoctoral associate in pathology, and Shmuel Eisenmann analyzed more than 300,000 foul shots taken during five regular NBA seasons, and found that patterns were hardly random: there was a significant increase in the odds that a player would hit the second shot in a two-shot series, compared to the first one. And they noted that in two shots, the odds of hitting the second is greater following a hit than after a miss.
 
The researchers said there's probably more behind the streaks than just success-breeding-success, and probably has to do with a player experiencing better and worse periods of play overall that are likely determined by deeper mental factors than simply making a prior shot, and need more study to understand.
 
Finally, a team at the California Institute of Technology looked at how higher financial stakes can make people's performance on a task suffer.
 
For the study, published May 10 in the journal Neuron, each participant was asked to control and place a virtual springy object into a square target within two seconds. After some training, each did the task while inside a device that scans brain activity by monitoring blood flow.
 
Then they added the element of financial incentives -- a randomized range of rewards from nothing to $100 offered for completing the task within the time limit. The scans focused on a part of the brain called the ventral striatum, known to be linked to anticipation of a reward.
 
Performance did improve as incentives grew -- but only when the cash rewards were around $20 or less for most subjects. Once the potential payoff was higher, performance started to lag.
 
Inside the brain, the scientists say, activity in the striatum also increased with rising incentives until the stakes got big, then the activity decreased. And they noted that the less activity they saw in the striatum, the worse the subject performed on the task.
 
They also did a coin-flip gambling test to indentify which people were most risk-averse. The results showed that those most fearful of losing (at lower stakes) also saw their performance on that test slump more quickly.
 
The researchers suggest that by knowing who is most likely to crumple when the stakes get higher -- whether in sports, business or even politics -- it may be possible to train the potential choker to avoid poor performance under stress.
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