R.J. Hildebrand, a 23-year-old rookie driver was poised to win the 2011 Indy 500 this past week. On the final lap, tragedy struck. As Hildebrand made the final turn, comfortably in the lead, he lost control of his car briefly, slammed into the wall, and was passed by Dan Wheldon. This shocking turn of events startled viewers and analysts. How could a driver make 799 left turns successfully, and then on the 800th turn, with only seconds separating him from victory at the Indy 500, he made a costly mistake (watch at the 1:50 mark for a video replay of the crash)?
Psychologists refer to underperforming expectations, particularly in crucial situations as choking. Why do athletes choke? In part, it is because we may think too much. Athletes rely on muscle memory to excel at what they do. They move through phases of competence, where beginning athletes are unconsciously incompetent (we don't know what we don't know or are not good at). Later, athletes become consciously incompetent (we know what we are not good at), then consciously competent (we know how to perform well, but it takes a concerted effort), and finally, unconsciously competent (we excel without thinking, also known as being in the Zone or being in a Flow State).
Last spring, a student of mine told a fascinating story in the course I teach in Motivation and Emotion:
"I have been trap shooting since I was about 9 years old, so a total of about 12 years. While I of course started out shooting low scores, I have steadily improved to the point where my average is around 22/25. My average has been at this point for probably 4-5 years. In that time, I have hit 24/25 twenty-five times. Every single time I have been 24/24, I have missed that 25th shot."
It was incredibly unlikely R.J. Hildebrand would crash on the last turn, and even more unlikely that my student, the trap shooter with a nearly 90% accuracy rate, would go 0/25 on 25th attempts. In fact, the likelihood of a 90% shooter going 0/25 is .0000000000000000000000001, or one in a trillion multiplied by ten trillion - in other words, as close to impossible as can be - yet it happened.
How could my student have choked so consistently in an area where he was otherwise supremely competent? Simply, he may have taken himself from unconscious competence to conscious competence (where he began thinking), or maybe even conscious incompetence (where he questioned his ability to hit the 25th shot).
My student went on to write that, "It is only when I get completely in the zone that I hit that 24 point, but every single time when I reach the last shot, I switch from not even thinking about hitting the target to repeatedly telling myself 'Don't miss. Don't miss. Don't miss this last shot.'"
My student sent me an update several months after class had ended. He wrote, "Finally, on Saturday, September 25th, 2010, I hit that last shot. What had changed? As I realized my score was perfect, and knowing what I had done to myself in the past, I began telling myself 'I'll make all of these shots. Even if I don't, it's not a big deal, there's no pressure. But I will hit every shot.' Not once did I tell myself not to miss, not once did I stress. I relaxed, took a deep breath, pulled the trigger, and hit number 25!" What a wonderful insight by a bright, motivated, and talented student who came to learn that once we are unconsciously competent, the last think we want to do during an activity is to think.
Whether it is Indy Car driving, trap shooting, or any other activity, our performance is dependent on a number of factors, and in some cases we may be better off not thinking. Once we are unconsciously competent, thinking too much may lead to "Paralysis by Analysis" where we struggle to perform activities that we otherwise perform routinely. We may never know what happened with R.J. Hildebrand, but it is possible that he became acutely aware of his impending victory and may have simply made the mistake of thinking.