Think differently to avoid choking under pressure

Wonder why people choke under pressure? This professor has an answer

With less than a minute left on the clock and his team down by two points, the Baltimore Ravens' Matt Stover jogged onto the field and kicked a 52-yard field goal, icing the game against the Cleveland Browns and securing first place for his team. It was one of 18 game-winners he made for the Ravens.

Players said that's what they expected from "Automatic Matt."

Recently, the former player — who was among the league's highest-scoring and most accurate kickers, attributed his cool under pressure to a mix of preparation, support from coaches and teammates, God and a sense of purpose.

But he added, "Some people are wired differently" — and new research suggests this is a factor.

According to a study by Johns Hopkins University researchers, a person's aversion to losing plays a big role. And the proof is in the brain, said Vikram Chib, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Hopkins' School of Medicine and at Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Chib believes his results might help people change the way they look at a stressful situation — kicking field goals, taking tests, meeting deadlines — and perform more like Stover.

"We can measure someone's loss aversion and then frame the task in a way that might help them avoid choking under pressure," Chib said.

Chib measured study participants' aversion to loss with bets on a series of coin tosses and then had them play video games for money. He learned that those highly averse to losing choked when they stood to win big and those more concerned with winning than losing choked when they faced big losses.

During the study, published online in the Journal of Neuroscience, he proved the outcomes by looking at images of the area of the brain called the ventral striatum to see the level of activity.

Chib said that, in the long term, it might be possible to stimulate the brain with tiny amounts of electricity to boost brain activity and performance. More immediately, he hopes the findings can be used by coaches, players and others to shift the way they view a challenge.

Stover, who converted 84 percent of his field goal attempts in a career that ended after the 2009 season, agreed that a change in perspective could help others do what he did more naturally.

He said he always wanted to play football and trained hard, but success came from more than being able to kick. As a professional player for the Browns, Ravens and the Indianapolis Colts, he found greater success from believing in "a purpose greater than myself," and Ravens coaches and players helped.

"I've always been able to kick a ball, but there is so much more to it than kicking a ball," he said. Coaches and teammates "can build confidence and trust in the kicker. But they also can give him the freedom to fail. That can be very empowering."

Stover, who now mentors other players, said it was a process. In the opening game of the 2005 season against Indianapolis, he missed three field goal attempts after having missed just three the entire previous year. He apologized to the team and the city of Baltimore for the team's loss.

Teammates didn't blame him and said they trusted him to do better. Stover said that helped him look at failure differently as he tweaked his technique. He missed only one field goal try the rest of the season.

Others who have studied choking under pressure agree that perspective matters.

Roy F. Baumeister, a psychology professor at Florida State University, was among the first to publish research about the phenomenon in 1984. He found that people choked when pressure made them pay more attention to their performance.

Pressure could come from competition, an audience or money at stake; people would show an increase in effort and a decrease in skill.

"The mind pays more attention to things that are important, but attending to the process of skilled performance can disrupt the automatic execution," he said. "Some people get good at handling the pressure and know how to avoid choking, though it can happen to anybody sooner or later."

Baumeister said Chib's findings suggest that people choke when they don't know how to handle a situation. Someone who is loss-averse might have developed the means to deal with a scenario that involves avoiding loss, but not when there are big gains at stake.

"Framing things as losses or gains may well help," he said.

And there are techniques to help people reframe or manage situations, said Sian Beilock, associate professor in psychology at the University of Chicago and author of the book "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To."

She said the natural flow of a performance is disrupted when people try to control or overanalyze every aspect. They can sing or whistle for distraction, use relaxation techniques such as meditation or remind themselves of their preparation and experience.

She agreed with Chib's suggestion that reframing a situation can change the outcome.

"I would argue that this is one factor that could affect your success when the stress is on," she said. "Similarly, we have shown that how you think about your ability to succeed — whether you focus on why you should succeed versus why you might fail — writing out your thoughts and feelings ahead of time, getting used to the pressure situation can also impact your chances of success under stress."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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