In the summer before the 2012 London Olympic Games I was interviewed for a Time article on Lolo Jones and choking. I thought the piece was well written, describing some of Lolo’s history and the science of performance psychology. As the track and field events are close to starting in Rio four years later I thought I would revisit this article.
One of the main themes of the article on choking is drawn from the research of Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago who wrote Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. Research by Beilock and others suggest that choking happens when the prefrontal cortex gets overloaded with too many thoughts. Instead of relying on well-learned skills, people who choke suffer from overthinking and overcontrolling.
While this research seems to get to the heart of the issue of choking the article also presents some science that would suggest there something else going on. The article also mentions the work of Hap Davis, a sport psychologist for Canadian swimming. He had a group of swimmers that had failed at some point recently in their careers to rewatch video of that failure. They did this in an fMRI machine. The brains were activated as we would expect from someone who was choking. Then things get interesting. He did a brief intervention that did not address issues of overthinking and overcontrolling. Instead he had them share their feelings about the race and noted that their negative emotion was eventually “washed out.” Hmmm. This emotional piece does not seem to get much play in most of the choking research. My practical experience working with Olympic and professional athletes (and also with many, many younger athletes as well) this emotional piece is at the core of managing pressure.
Indeed, the article quotes Lolo is saying “I really just put too much pressure on myself.” Understanding and breaking down this statement is the key to understanding how to perform under pressure. It’s easy to assume that pressure comes from the setting. From playing in a Stanley Cup finals. From playing in the Super Bowl. From competing in the Olympics. Although there are common settings we might expect to find some pressure in the athletes, pressure ultimately comes from ourselves. And even more so from how we view ourselves. After years of studying the neuroscience while the brain works in high-performance settings, particularly under pressure, I have come to realize the importance of broader psychological characteristics over simple mental skills. As one of the senior sports psychologists with the United States on the committee said earlier this year “I think it is sport psychology malpractice to hope that the normal stuff works in these situations when I have seen that it regularly DOESN’T work.” The normal stuff he was referring to are the typical mental skills taught by many sports psychologists. Our model at iPerformance recognizes that there is way more psychology involved in being able to consistently perform under pressure. Hopefully the choking research eventually incorporates this as well.
And for Lolo’s Olympics back in 2012. Did she choke again? Absolutely not. In my opinion she had a great Olympic performance. She finished an amazing fourth-place. Sally Pearson broke the Olympic record and won the gold medal. Don Harper broke the only big record and won the silver medal. And hopefully shut up all the morons who asked her for four years if her gold medal in Beijing was legitimate because Lolo fell. And Kelli Wells had an amazing race to win the bronze medal. These three amazing athletes were going to be incredibly difficult to beat. Which makes Lolo’s finish, despite having injury issues all year, very impressive. She was able to block out tremendous distractions and get out all that her body would allow, which was probably more than most people would in that setting.