The Psychology and Neuroscience of Choking
An NBA player is fouled shooting a three-point shot as the buzzer sounds with his team trailing the game by three points. He heads to the foul line needing to make all three free throws to send the game to overtime and give his team an opportunity to win. A hush comes over the hometown faithful as the player steps to the charity stripe.
Imagine yourself in the shoes of the player described above. What thoughts might begin running through your mind?
“What if I miss?”
“I don’t want to let my team down.”
“This is my chance to be the hero.”
Above are just a few examples of what a player might think in this type of situation, even though they’ll rarely admit it. They know their role as social actor in this scenario and step to the line as if it is just another shot. The only problem is the brain doesn’t necessarily respond as if it is.
Basketball is an interesting sport because it moves very quickly, and then in a split second the game the stops when a foul is whistled. If it is a shooting foul, a player goes from intense physical exertion to a dead stop in the blink of an eye. Understanding the basic psychology and neuroscience of this process provides wonderful insights into the psychology of what is often referred to as “choking.”
During regular play in a basketball game, the body is just reacting based on muscle memory and instinct derived from the cerebellum in the hindbrain, which is stimulated from physical repetition. However, when the game is stopped because of a foul, the player begins consciously thinking again.
The frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex allow us to think about the actions we are about to engage in. More specifically, the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that evolved last) of the frontal lobes gives us the ability to plan ahead in ways many other animals cannot.
The ability to think ahead and project what might happen in the future even without previous exposure to a given stimulus is a wonderful adaptive feature that makes human beings unique in comparison to many other animals. However, this same function also has the ability to make us neurotic in ways other animals are not, both in life and on the basketball court.
Consider an example with a herd of deer. The deer graze quite contently on the grass in a nearby meadow with no indication that a mountain lion is stalking them nearby. As soon as the mountain lion makes its break toward the herd, the deer become aware of its presence and begin instinctually sprinting in the other direction. If the mountain lion captures a member of the herd, it will most likely be a young or sick deer. Once that member is captured, the remaining deer just move on with their lives. They do not mourn the fallen member. Perhaps most remarkable from our context as humans, the deer will return to the very same spot to graze the next day with no signs of anxiety. Why? Because the deer lack the prefrontal cortex functioning to be able to project what might happen in the future. Instead, they only feel anxious in a very primal way when they are experiencing a real threat and the amygdala triggers a fight or flight response. So if the lion returns, the deer will once again be anxious in the moment when they are threatened. Once that threat is averted, though, the deer return to baseline functioning.
The amygdala is the fight or flight center of the brain. It is part of the reptilian brain that we share with basically all other creatures. The amygdala resides more broadly in what is called the limbic system, which is the emotional center of the brain. The limbic system is a primitive but very powerful part of the brain. It is important for our example because it is a part of the brain shared by both deer and humans.
With that said, imagine for a second (as outrageous as it might sound) if the same scenario happened to you in your place of business as happened to the herd of deer. A mountain lion breaks into your office and sends both you and your co-workers running. Perhaps the lion even mauls someone. Are you coming to work the next day just as the deer came back to the same meadow? Almost certainly not. And even if you do, you will likely be preoccupied with fears of another attack based on the past trauma experienced, a fear the deer would not share with you without the physical presence of a lion.
As human beings, we can quite literally think ourselves into neuroticism. This is a remarkable, albeit often unpleasant, ability. For example, have you ever experienced a day that was going well until you simply stopped to think?
Perhaps one negative thought enters your mind: “Aw shoot, I forgot to type up that report that is due later today.”
That triggers a cascade of other negative thoughts such as:
“I’m lousy at my job.”
“My boss hates me.”
“I’m going to get fired.”
“I’m a loser.”
“My wife hates me and probably wants a divorce.”
“I will die lonely and worthless under a bridge some place.”
Fairly remarkable how one negative thought can lead very quickly to a very grave conclusion. Welcome to the power of the prefrontal cortex. While it is nice sentiment to try and live in the moment as much as possible, our brains simply won’t let us. We are hardwired to ponder the future.
So how does all of this tie back to basketball, you ask? Simply, the same process is at work for NBA athletes during competition. As noted earlier, the brain and the body performs almost on autopilot through muscle memory during regular play. However, when play stops, the frontal lobes enter the picture and the player begins thinking again.
Take yourself back to the example at the beginning of this article of the player being fouled shooting a three-point shot who needs to make all three shots to tie the game and send it into overtime. With the action stopped and the frontal lobes now in play, the player at the line is susceptible to frontal lobe suggestion. Said differently, the player can begin thinking about possible outcomes.
Negative thoughts can actually alter one’s physiological states. The negative thoughts initiated by the frontal lobes can trigger the amygdala. Remember, the amygdala is the fight or flight response. When this occurs, a person can literally start shaking or have movements actually impaired or slowed down. As you can imagine, these things would likely not be helpful for our free throw shooter. In essence, the amygdala can be hijacked by negative thoughts thereby impairing performance.
One potential solution to this is arousal modulation. This starts with helping the athlete “turn off” or quiet his frontal lobes. Successful athletes are able to ignore excess frontal lobe suggestion therefore avoiding stimulation of the amygdala in the limbic system and preventing severe performance anxiety.
Practically speaking, one way to get a basketball player out of his own head in this kind of late game situation is to have him focus on the mechanics of his routine as opposed to entertaining thoughts that might be running through his head. If you are a passionate basketball fan, player or coach you are already well aware that routines are encouraged at the foul line. These routines can serve much more than a physical function, though. They can also serve a neuroscientific one that many folks aren’t even aware they’re serving.
You may have seen NBA players at the foul line talking to themselves. This alone isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. However, if the player is reciting some kind of mantra that allows him to focus and block out potential negative thoughts advanced by the frontal lobes, this can be a fantastic arousal modulation strategy.
It’s important to remember that players don’t have direct control over whether or not the amygdala is triggered, and once it is triggered the physical side effects will not be instantly eradicated. This is a very basic response for us just as it was for the deer used in the previous example. What we do have control over is finding strategies to temper the negative thoughts of the frontal lobe prior to stimulation of the amygdala.
In truth, there is really no way to truly simulate such a scenario in practice. It is simply impossible to synthetically create the kind of pressure a player will feel. However, what is possible is making sure players have routines and preemptive strategies for quieting their frontal lobes to take with them into that stressful late-game situation. And like anything else, these strategies need to be practiced and perfected for maximum efficiency.
One final note is that players have different baseline or idle levels of arousal in the brain. Some players are genetically pre-programmed to handle pressure situations better than others. With that said, arousal modulation is something that all athletes have the ability to benefit from since no player is completely immune from frontal lobe suggestion, and therefore not completely immune from this phenomenon that has come to be known as “choking.”
Dr. Travis Heath is a psychologist in private practice and an assistant professor of psychology at MSU Denver. He has served as a team consultant in the NBA. He also co-hosts a show on Mile High Sports Radio weeknights from 6-8 p.m. You can follow him on Twitter @DrTravisHeath.