The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Why Does Overthinking Cause Athletes to Choke?

Neuroscientists uncover the roots of "paralysis by analysis."

Tennis legend Arthur Ashe said famously, “There is a syndrome in sports called ‘paralysis by analysis.’” A new study from University of California Santa Barbara was published on August 7, 2013 in the Journal of Neuroscience that shows why overthinking causes athletes to fumble, choke, and drop the ball. The same brain functions that cause athletes to choke, effect all of us in our pursuit of peak performance on and off the court.

The UCSB researchers were curious to uncover the brain mechanisms behind 'paralysis by analysis' and why paying full attention and trying too hard often interferes with peak performance. Their findings suggest that the secret to not choking lies in overriding our 'explicit' memory system, and allowing our 'implicit' memory system to run free.

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We have two types of memory: implicit memory and explicit memory. Anything that we learn to do through practice that becomes automatic (like riding a bicycle) is part of our implicit memory. Implicit memory is a form of long-term memory that doesn’t require conscious thought and is expressed by means other than words. Explicit (or “declarative”) memory is another kind of long-term memory formed consciously and can literally be described in words.

Describing how to serve a tennis ball is basically impossible. Implicit memories must be formed and taught through witnessing them and then experiencing them first hand. Whenever your body and mind learns through "practice, practice, practice" implicit memory is strengthened and is able to function on autopilot. This creates a state of flow. If you are constanlty overthinking any physical process by engaging explicit memory, you will create interference that leads to discombobulation and short-circuits the fluidity of your performance.

Recently, lots of scientists and psychologists have been exploring implicit and explicit memory functions as they pertain to human behavior, performance, and the architecture of the brain. I have been writing about this since 2005.

"Cerebral" Explicit Memory vs. "Cerebellar" Implicit Memory 

I write extensively about the difference between explicit and implicit memory in The Athlete’s Way (St. Martin’s Press). As an athlete, and the son of a neuroscientist, I have been fascinated by the neuroscience of peak athletic performance from a young age. 

The Athlete’s Way philosophy is founded on the principle that to succeed in sports and any competition you need to have a balance between explicit memory function of the cerebrum and the implicit memory function of the cerebellum. Cerebellar means relating to or located in the cerebellum. This is the sister word to cerebral, which means relating to or located in the cerebrum.

The cerebellum (Latin: "little brain") is responsible for all coordinated movements, balance, proprioception, rhythm, timing and much, much more. Anything you do automatically – from driving a car, to riding a bike, to performing seemingly mundane tasks at work – is based on cerebellar efficiency.

Our long-term explicit memory is supported by various regions of the prefrontal cortex in the cerebrum. The prefrontal cortex is the newest part of the human brain in terms of our evolution. It is the part of your brain responsible for planning, executive function, and working memory. "A lot of people think the reason we're human is because we have the most advanced prefrontal cortex," said the UCSB study's lead author, Taraz Lee, a postdoctoral scholar working in UCSB's Action Lab.

The cerebellum is a mighty mouse and ounce for ounce packs a walloping punch. Measured by neurons rather than by volume, the ‘little brain’ is actually the larger brain. Although the cerebellum is only 10% of brain volume, it holds more than 50% of your brain's total neurons.

I’m always surprised that neuroscience articles (like the one released yesterday from UCSB) about implicit and explicit memory always seem to mention the prefrontal cortex, but the researchers usually fail to mention the role our cerebellum plays in implicit memory function.

My father, Richard M. Bergland—who was a world renowned neurosurgeon, neuroscientist, and author of The Fabric of Mind (Viking)—clued me into the fact that whatever the mysterious and powerful cerebellum is doing, it's doing a lot of it. As a teenager playing tennis with my dad he would say things like, "Chris, think about hammering and forging the muscle memory of your cerebellum with every stroke." He passed his fascination with the cerebellum on to me as an athlete, coach and writer. I am on a mission to put the cerebellum in the spotlight and make cerebellar a household word.

For a quick 2-minute explanation of how the cerebrum and cerebellum work together in concert please watch this YouTube video.

Both hemispheres of the cerebrum and cerebellum must work in harmony to create fluid peak performance in sport and life. For this reason, I created a split-brain model based on the salient divide of the 'cranial globe' being north-south between the cerebrum (up brain) and cerebellum (down brain), not east-west between left brain-right brain. All four hemispheres must synchronize to create superfluidity, which is a state of performing with zero friction or viscosity I write about in my book. Superfluidity is the polar opposite of choking.

In The Athlete’s Way I quote William James who said, “Action Seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.” This is the foundation of cognitive behavioral therapy but also peak performance created by balancing implicit and explicit function of the cerebellum and cerebrum respectively. I go on to write, “The memory system of your lower brain is nonintellectual and learns through repetition, practice and emotional responses. In addition to being the seat of all athletic performance, I believe the cerebellum is also the seat of our implicit unconscious memories and habits.” (p. 281)

Researchers Hone in on Specific Prefrontal Cortex Functions

Previous brain studies have shown that taxing explicit memory resources improved recognition memory without awareness. These results suggested that implicit perceptual memory can aid performance on recognition tests. Based on this, Lee and his colleagues at UCSB decided to test whether the effects of the attentional control processes associated with explicit memory could directly interfere with implicit memory. Their findings are exciting because Lee and his team were able to isolate how different parts of the prefrontal cortex effect implicit memory processes.

Taraz Lee's study used a method called continuous Theta-burst transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to temporarily disrupt the function of two different parts of the prefrontal cortex, the dorsolateral and ventrolateral. The dorsal and ventral regions are close to each other but have slightly different functions. Disrupting function in two distinct areas provided a direct causal test of whether explicit memory processing exerts control over sensory resources – in this case, visual information processing – and in doing so indirectly harms implicit memory processes.

When the researchers disrupted the ventral area of the prefrontal cortex, participants' memory was just slightly worse. "They would shift from saying that they could remember a lot of rich details about the image to being vaguely familiar with the images," Lee said. "It didn't actually make them better at the task."

Conclusion: Unclamp the Prefrontal Cortex for Fluid Performance

In 1911, in “On Vital Reserves: The Energies of Men. The Gospel of Relaxation” William James said, “Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free; and the service it will do you will be twice as good.” James’ words from over a century ago are prophetic in identifying the importance of ‘unclamping’ the explicit memory and executive function of the prefrontal cortex to break the cycle of 'paralysis by analysis' and achieve a state of superfluid peak performance in sports and in life.

Interestingly, Lee's fascination with the effect of attentional processes on implicit and explicit memory stems from his extensive sports background. Lee points out that there are always examples of professional golfers who have the lead on the 18th hole, but when it comes down to one easy shot, they fall apart. "That should be the time when it all comes out the best, but you just can't think about that sort of thing," he said. "It just doesn't help you."

Taraz Lee concludes, "I think most researchers who look at prefrontal cortex function are trying to figure out what it does to help you and how that explains how the brain works and how we act. I look at it at the opposite. If we can figure out the ways in which activity in this part of the brain hurts you, then this also informs how your brain works and can give us some clues to what's actually going on."

Lee plans to do continuing studies at UCSB's Action Lab that will focus on dissecting the neuroscience behind why people choke under pressure. His work will use brain scans to examine why people who are highly incentivized to do well often succumb to pressure and how the prefrontal cortex and these attentional processes interfere with performance.

If you are interested in reading more on how implicit and explicit memory relates to peak performance please check out my Psychology Today blogs: “No. 1 Reason Practice Makes Perfect”, “Can Practice Alone Create Mastery?”, “Our Unconscious Mind Catches Grammatical Errors” and “Primitive Brain Area Linked to Human Intelligence”.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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