Why do some athletes choke under pressure? The answer lies deep in the brain

Olympians most likely to bring home the gold are those who find a way to stay focused, even when the stakes are high

Video: Len Turner and Dave Schmelick

Imagine two Olympians who are equally trained, equally fit, equally talented. Is there a way to tell which athlete will win, and which athlete will choke?

Vikram Chib, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins, says that if he could compare their brain scans, he'd have a good idea about which one is most likely to choke under pressure during the games: it's whoever is most excited about winning gold, and all the pride, glory, and potential cash that comes with it.

When playing for high stakes, some people experience a drop in brain activity in a part of the brain associated with assessing value. That neural deactivation can affect the player's motor skills—and they choke.

Chib studies how incentives motivate performance. He's found that when people play for high stakes, those likely to choke have wild swings of activity in an area deep in the brain that encodes value. In these people, the bigger the incentive, the more the area lights up. But once they start the activity where money is on the line, that activity plummets, the same way it would when someone thinks about losing. That neural deactivation can affect the player's motor skills—and they choke.

"Think of a hockey player taking a penalty shot," Chib says. "They might think to themselves, I'm going to score. But when they actually take the shot, they become worried about the possibility of failure and they miss. We think that the areas of the brain that are responsible for encoding reward and potential gains and losses are what's coming online and interfering with their motor performance. Even a hockey player that's trained thousands upon thousands of hours, these worries about loss or gain can interfere with their performance."

The athletes most likely to bring home a medal, Chib says, are either hard-wired to keep their cool when the stakes are high, or they've found a way to get mentally in the zone.

"We found when you frame things appropriately, your neural activity stays pretty constant. You don't get really amped up for high gains or really depressed for losses," he says. "The people that can maintain very stable reward activity tend to be the ones that don't choke under pressure."

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