Extreme Fear

Getting a grip on the brain's alarm system

Olympians, Beware!

Science finds new ways for athletes to fail.

The season of world-class athletic competition is upon us. For competitors, the pressure can yield world-record breaking performances -- or catastrophic collapse. When the stakes are high, even world-class athletes can dramatically cave under pressure - the dreaded specter of choking. As I describe in my book, garden-variety choking is a result of social fear, which causes all kinds of performers - from athletes to actors, and even ordinary people in the bedroom - to become painfully self-aware in a way that undermines the smooth flow of their well-practiced automaticity.

New studies from Europe, however, points to other ways in which anxiety on the playing field can cause athletes to screw up.

Both studies, interestingly, deal with penalty kicks in soccer, or football as it's known in those parts. In the first study, researchers from Norway and the Netherlands analyzed televised footage of championship soccer matches. (Yes, they were paid to watch sports videos.) They measured the amount of time it took the kicker to run up and whack the ball after the referee gave him the all clear. They found that players who kicked too quickly missed their shots a significantly higher percentage of the time. The authors concluded that the stress of being on the spot caused some players to shoot before they were ready. "The extreme levels of pressure that are induced by major penalty shootouts," the authors wrotes, "[causes] performers to attempt escaping the emotional distress by getting the situation ‘over with' as soon as possible."

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The moral of the story: When you're under pressure, take your time.

By the way, it's worth noting that the researchers also found that players who were forced to delay their kicks by the referee also suffered a higher failure rate. This result is in keeping with prior studies, which have found that if skilled performers are given too much time to think about what they're doing, their chance of choking increases, presumably because the extra time afford them more of an opportunity to become self-conscious.

The second, and latest, goal-kicking study comes from the University of Exeter in the UK. The researchers asked 14 experienced soccer players to attempt penalty kicks while wearing a device that recorded the direction of their gaze. The subjects performed the kicks in a low-stress setting, in which nothing was at stake, and then again in a high-stress situation, in which the subjects were told that they were competing against one another for a cash prize.

The researchers found that in the high-pressure situation, the kickers tended to fixate on the goalie, looking at them earlier in the kicking process and keeping their eyes on him longer. As a result, they subsequently tended to kick their shots toward him more often as well, making their shots easier to block.

The tendency of people under stress to focus on the threat to the exclusion of all else is a well-established process called "cognitive narrowing." A driver who is trying to avoid a ditch, for instance, might become so fixated on it that she drives right into it. How to avoid this kind of pitfall? The study's authors had this to say in a press release:

Research shows that the optimum strategy for penalty takers to use is to pick a spot and shoot to it, ignoring the goalkeeper in the process. Training this strategy is likely to build on the tight coordination between eye movements and subsequent actions, making for more accurate shooting. The idea that you cannot recreate the anxiety a penalty taker feels during a shootout is no excuse for not practicing. Do you think other elite performers don't practice basic aiming shots in darts, snooker or golf for the same reasons? These skills need to be ingrained so they are robust under pressure.

In other words, the way to prepare for stress is to devise a strategy and then train, train, train. Well-learned behaviors hold up better under stress than those which haven't been fully transferred to procedural memory. If you want to do something well under intense fear, make sure you can do it automatically.

Jeff Wise is a New York-based science writer and author of Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.

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