McKayla Maroney was named to the U.S. Women’s Olympic Gymnastics team largely because of her vaulting ability. And, last week in the team competition she showed off her skills on vault, helping the U.S. team win the all-around gold. Some called her the best vaulter of all times. But Maroney wasn’t able to clinch the gold in Sunday’s vaulting final. The current world champion in the event fell on her rear in her second vault and had to settle for silver instead.

The unexpected second place finish for Maroney highlights a basic truth about sports. Whether athletes choke or shine is often driven as much by their minds as their muscles.

As I have blogged about before, a few months ago, neuroscientists at Cal Tech demonstrated how powerful mindset can be. People played a virtual ball game for cash prizes. When there was only a little money on the line, a couple of dollars, volunteers did well. But, when the stakes went higher, say a hundred dollars, folks “choked” under the pressure. A look inside the head tells us why.

When people first learned about the cash they could win, the ventral striatum, an area of the brain that focuses on rewards, took notice. The more cash, the more excited the ventral striatum was, brain scans showed. This bit of brain is known to track the possibility of rewards, so this finding is predictable. But what’s really interesting is that once people started actually playing the ball game, activity in the same brain area decreased as the prize money went higher. Once folks seemed to realize what they might lose, the ventral striatum went quiet. And, the more this brain area focused on reward shut down, the more people choked.

Gymnast McKayla Maroney was likely counting on her vaulting gold before it happened. And, this really puts the pressure on. When we fear losing something we have been counting on, this fear of failure tends to make us more likely to screw up.

Fortunately, the opposite is true too: thinking about success alters our mental mechanics to help us shine under pressure. Since the last Olympics, Hap Davis, the psychologist for the Canadian Swim Team, has been employing a mindset exercise that changes how his athletes’ brains deal with failure. Davis says that getting his swimmers to see their past failure in a more positive light helps them avoid the dreaded “choke.”

To test out his mindset exercise, Davis started by peering inside the heads of Team Canada swimmers as they watched videos of their failed races at the 2004 Olympics. Not surprisingly, the swimmer’s own poor performances elicited a lot of activity in negative emotion centers of the brain.

He then took the athletes through a short lesson designed to reframe their negative mindsets. He taught the swimmers to think about what specifically they did wrong – were they slow of the blocks? was their stroke not efficient? – what they might do differently on the next swim, and why this change would lead to success. That’s it.

Sure enough, when the swimmers watched their failed races after the mindset lesson, their brains looked different. The athletes showed less activity in negative emotion centers and more activity in important motor regions of the brain. The mindset intervention primed the brain for action and improved competition – a focus likely to bring about consistent success.

There is something pretty surprising about these findings. People often believe that they are born with a certain kind of brain that propels them to either shine or fail when the pressure is on. But the ability to pull off our best performance when the stakes are high isn’t set in stone – for Olympians or for ordinary people. Rather, fearing failure increases the likelihood of failure, and thinking about why you should succeed helps stabilize brain activity and lessen the possibility of performance flubs. We all have the brain power to function at our best under stress, we just need learn how to use it.

For more on learning, check out my book Choke!

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About the Author

Sian Beilock, Ph.D.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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