In football there are few plays more thrilling than a last-second field goal attempt: both teams line up with the clock one or two ticks from zero. The ball is snapped and the crowd roars as the kicker charges forward in an effort to drive the ball through the yellow uprights, the fate of his team hanging in the balance. Yet why do some kickers rise to the challenge whereas others choke under pressure? It may have more to do with their mental state than physical ability, one psychologist says.
“Choking” is a term that has seeped into the vernacular to describe those big moments when athletes—or any individuals in a stressful situation—are unable to perform well under pressure. Choking, however, has little to do with failing to pull off the unbelievable (a 60-yard field goal in a blizzard, for example) nor does it describe a random off-day, performance-wise. Rather, Sian Beilock, a neuroscientist who authored the 2010 book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have to, defines the phenomenon as a “worse performance than you'd expect given someone’s skills and experience, precisely because they find the situation to be pressure-filled or stressful.” For example, a kicker taking the field during a big game and bungling an easy 25-yard field goal he had made thousands of times before. So what happens when someone chokes?
Beilock tackled this question in a 2008 study where she asked novice and expert golfers to either take their time in performing a series of golf putts or putt as quickly as they could. The novices struggled when they tried to putt quickly whereas the experts’ performance was worse when they took their time. This led Beilock to conclude that when athletes become really skilled at performing a task, they start undertaking parts of it outside conscious awareness—they go on autopilot. When they are under pressure, however, anxiety starts to creep in, pushing them to focus harder in an attempt to perform better. That is when things begin to unravel. “They start thinking too much about aspects of what they’re doing that should just run outside of conscious awareness,” Beilock says, “and it actually disrupts them.” For those of us who are not expert athletes, Beilock offers a different example: walking down a flight of stairs. “[If] I asked you to think about what you were doing with your knee,” she says, “you’d likely fall on your face.”
This shift originates in the brain: The cerebellum, the area below and behind the cerebrum responsible for motor control, coordinates complex actions when we are on autopilot. But as soon as we start focusing on the individual steps, the cerebral cortex, which controls higher-order conscious thought, takes over and we stumble into trouble.
When it comes to high-pressure athletic situations such as those found in championship playoff games, the Super Bowl is near the top of the list. Last year 75,000 people filled Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., to watch the Denver Broncos take on the Carolina Panthers, and some 112 million tuned in from home. And although some Super Bowls are won by comfortable leads or blowouts, others turn on razor-thin margins (five of the last 15 Super Bowls have been decided by three points or less). These conditions set the stage for choking, and Beilock says that placekickers may be particularly susceptible. “You could have the game on your shoulders, all eyes are on you [and] you have some time, often, to dwell on what you’re about to do,” she explains, “and that could be a good recipe for disaster.”
Take former San Diego Chargers player Nate Kaeding, who ended his nine-season NFL career as the second-most accurate field goal kicker in history—he made 86.2 percent of his total attempts. And yet in the playoffs, his percentage dropped to 53.3 percent. In one notorious playoff game he had three misses, including 36- and 40-yard kicks he had not missed all season. His performance seems to be the very definition of choking under pressure.
Then there are other kickers who consistently come through in a tight spot. Adam Vinatieri, just off his 21st NFL season, has scored more crucial field goals than any other kicker in history, including 82.4 percent in playoff games, earning him a slew of admiring nicknames such as “Automatic Adam”, “Iceman” and “Mr. Clutch.” Yet is anyone born a clutch player? According to Beilock, probably not.
“My work really suggests that there is a toolbox of techniques that we can use to perform better in stressful situations,” she says, “And some people happen to utilize those better than others. But I think it’s something that can be learned.” She suggests practicing skills under pressure, in conditions close to those of the actual event. “That means for everyday people, if you’re going to be playing in front of your friends and family, you should probably practice that way, too,” she says. She also recommends not dwelling on the task ahead of time, adding that it can be helpful to distract yourself by singing a song or repeating a key word: “Something that takes your mind off the mechanics of what you're doing.” Her work has shown that in high-stress situations, the best athletes are able to succeed by focusing on the overall outcome rather than on the individual steps.
On Sunday when the New England Patriots face off against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, placekickers Stephen Gostkowski and Matt Bryant will inevitably spend most of the night on the sidelines, waiting to be called upon in the highest-stakes moments to perform for a few vital seconds. They both have the physical ability to get the job done—their battle to succeed will happen largely in their brains. And as they take the field, millions of people will be waiting with bated breath for the answer to an age-old question: Will they choke?