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When the Pressure is On, What Predicts Whether an Athlete Will Choke or Shine?

Losing the negative self-talk helps ensure success under stress

Tennis player Melanie Oudin was virtually unheard of on the professional sports scene until she caused a series of surprise upsets against top ranked players like Maria Sharapova at the 2009 US Open. These upsets landed Melanie in the quarterfinals and, all of a sudden, the blonde, blue-eyed teenager from Marietta, Georgia, had become a household name. Speculations that she was the next tennis superstar abounded.

Now, a year later, Melanie is back at the US Open. She is no longer the Cinderella story. Instead, there are high expectations for success. As Oudin recently put it herself:

"I definitely feel a lot more pressure than last year." "Almost every person in the United States expects me to win every single match I play, so, I mean, that's kind of a little bit of pressure."

What dictates whether an athlete will fall on her face under the pressure to win or rise to greatness instead? The answer to this question is not one size fits all and there are certainly several different factors that can make the difference between choking versus clutching under pressure. But, let me throw out just one factor that may, in part, explain why, in Oudin's first round victory at Arthur Ashe Stadium yesterday, she showed the world the pressure is not fazing her (at least not yet).

Oudin came into yesterday's match on a four match losing streak and with a rough season behind her. But, despite Melanie's recent past play, the perky 18 year old held on to her positivity. She has repeatedly stated in the media that she thinks she is a better player than she was a year ago and, from her interviews, you often get the sense that she has a tendency to focus on the positive. What else would you expect from someone who - at last year's open - had the word "Believe" written on her sneakers.

Being positive might seem like an obvious ingredient for success. But why does it work? One reason is that focusing too much on the negative seems to change how your brain registers success and failure and, in turn, how prepared you are for competition. Take work by Hap Davis, the team psychologist for the Canadian national swim team. A few years ago, Davis teamed up with a group of neuroscientists in Canada to peer inside the heads of Canadian National swimmers while they thought about swims during which they had choked. Davis and the researchers used fMRI to look at about a dozen swimmers who'd failed to make the 2004 Canadian Olympic team at the pressure-filled Olympic trials or performed poorly under the pressures of the Olympic stage.

The athletes watched both videos of their failed races and videos of other swimmers competing. While they watched, their brains were scanned so that the researchers could see the type of brain activity elicited by the swimmer's own failed performance.

When the swimmers watched their own poor performances, they showed more activity in emotional centers in the brain, like the amygdala, than when they watched videos of other competitors racing. Athletes watching their own failures also showed decreased activity in motor regions of the brain that are essential for the planning and execution of movements. Davis speculates that the decrease in motor activity in response to the swimmers seeing themselves fail may be similar to what is observed in animals when they are trying to escape and know there is no way out. In these situations, the animal stops trying and simply lies still. This is sometimes referred to as learned helplessness, a phenomenon in which people don't feel they have control over a particular situation or outcome so they stop working to try and obtain a goal.

Interestingly, when Davis did an exercise that encouraged athletes to focus on the positive aspects of their performance and then scanned them again, their brains looked different. When the swimmers watched their failed races after the positivity exercise, they had less emotion-related brain activity and more activity in important motor regions of the brain. By getting rid of the negative emotions stirred up by reliving a defeat, the short intervention may help prime the brain for action and improved competition the next time around. At least Davis thinks it's working for Team Canada, who seem to be turning around failure faster than ever.

There is no doubt that Melanie Oudin has a long way to go to provide a sequel to last year's Open. But, her quick day's work yesterday (beating Ukrainian Olga Savchuk, 6-3, 6-0 in 56 minutes and only dropping two points in the second set) is a start. Moreover, Melanie's ability to lose any negativity and focus on the positive may be one factor that keeps her brain and her game on the right track.

For more on Oudin, Team Canada and anti-choking techniques, check out my forthcoming book CHOKE

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1Davis et al. (2008). fMRI BOLD Signal Changes in Elite Swimmers While Viewing Videos of Personal Failure. Brain Imaging and Behavior, 2, 84-93.