Putting pressure on theories of choking: towards an expanded perspective on breakdown in skilled performance

Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 14 (2):253-293 (2015)
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There is a widespread view that well-learned skills are automated, and that attention to the performance of these skills is damaging because it disrupts the automatic processes involved in their execution. This idea serves as the basis for an account of choking in high pressure situations. On this view, choking is the result of self-focused attention induced by anxiety. Recent research in sports psychology has produced a significant body of experimental evidence widely interpreted as supporting this account of choking in certain kinds of complex sensorimotor skills. We argue against this interpretation, pointing to problems with both the empirical evidence and the underlying theory. The experimental research fails to provide direct support for the central claims of the self-focus approach, contains inconsistencies, and suffers from problems of ecological validity. In addition, qualitative studies of choking have yielded contrary results. We further argue that in their current forms the self-focus and rival distraction approaches both lack the theoretical resources to provide a good theory of choking, and we argue for an expanded approach. Some of the elements that should be in an expanded approach include accounts of the features of pressure situations that influence the psychological response, the processes of situation appraisal, and the ways that attentional control can be overwhelmed, leading to distraction in some cases, and in others, perhaps, to damaging attention to skill execution. We also suggest that choking may sometimes involve performance-impairing mechanisms other than distraction or self-focus

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