Why we choke: a fresh perspective

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Underperforming when it counts or choking is one of those frustrating problems we'd do well to redefine. Choking is not well understood.

How can you perform something to near perfection in practice, then somehow screw up when it matters most? Typical explanations, once analyzed, don't hold up.

Here are some examples of conventional wisdom:

The pressure was on.

Yes, and that would be the most logical time to do well. Why (in many cases) does pressure lead to choking? It isn't a given, as some people perform at their best under pressure.

It was a fluke.

This could be true, of course. However, it doesn't explain consistent underperforming, as the performer presumably demonstrates the performance in practice without the same pattern of choking.

I just seized up. It was nerves.

This may be the most commonly offered and accepted explanation. In spite of the attempt at identifying a reasonable sounding cause, it doesn't actually explain much. Rather, attributing choking to nerves merely introduces (however appropriately) a new process which is different than the one intended. It's the equivalent of saying something like: Instead of kicking the ball according to my training, I did something else.

Here are two separate and distinct processes from start to finish:

• Kicking a ball

• Nervously kicking a ball

These two processes are separate and distinct from one another. The subsets of the entire strategy used in kicking, from inner thoughts and feelings to obvious or subtle differences in physical movement, are in striking contrast to each other in the above two scenarios.

Choking due to nerves could be summarized as: You planned on kicking a ball the way you have kicked it 1000 times in practice but ended up nervously kicking a ball. You planned on doing process #1 but did #2 instead.

Afterward, you'd be tempted to think, "My nervousness caused me to mess up." In your mind, you were engaged in process #1 when nerves entered the scene and caused it to go awry. In reality, you weren't engaged in process #1 at all. You were doing process #2 from the get-go.

So, what caused you to engage (consciously or unconsciously) in a different process than the one you've spent months or years practicing?

Suggesting nerves interfered with a process you were never actually engaged in isn't that helpful. At worst, this assumption will send you on a wild goose chase in search of a cause and solution. When you find the supposed cause of the failure, you'll work to discover solutions to a problem that never existed.

You could still insist nerves were the cause of the trouble. After all, in key moments, you might be consumed by anxiety, and performance issues such as test anxiety are common. It feels like a sudden disorder; you can't shake off the nerves after all, and spend significant energy attempting to keep it at bay. However, the fear is an inevitable part of a different process than the one you invested so much time practicing.

It would be more accurate to say process #2 begins with a fear-inducing mental filter, such as anticipation of failure.

Seeing through this catastrophic lens would indeed produce high anxiety. You could become consciously consumed with the emotional symptom without realizing you've adopted the failure-predicting, anxiety-provoking lens in the first place.

Anticipating failure as step one (and then consciously fearing and resisting it) does indeed introduce a very different strategy than rehearsed on a typical practice day. The nerves rationale might satisfy the need for a cursory explanation but may fall short of solving the problem.

It makes sense that nervously kicking a ball would yield less favorable results. Still, we haven't established why a skilled ball kicker would (unconsciously) give up a well-trained pattern of kicking and substitute a different process that is more likely to fail, especially in a moment when the advantages of relying on the well-trained pattern are at their highest.

We do know, however, this substitution game is so common that we give it nicknames like choking.

Unconscious Influence

It's safe to say that unconscious processes play a role in choking, which we can now define as: Substituting (from initial mindset through physical performance) a well-practiced, largely effective process with one that is less likely to get positive results.

Our ball kicker surely has no conscious intention of doing something different than he trained himself to do. It's fair to suggest he substitutes the less effective process innocently.

This is logical for obvious reasons having to do with his conscious desires for success. It's also reasonable given the nature of conscious and unconscious processes in general. Research indicates that most of our decision-making occurs at an unconscious level. We consciously become aware of the results of the decision only after the fact.

Studies also suggest the unconscious mind acts independently upon emotions, motivations, and preferences of which the conscious mind may never be aware. If there were process substitution going on, it could justifiably be an unconscious choice, one over which the performer had no conscious control.

It should also be noted that the unconscious mind is goal-oriented (it's always moving toward something) and operates on the principle of familiarity. What's familiar is perceived as safe, which is of utmost importance to the unconscious mind. 

If we keep these principles in mind, we can make sense of the facts:

The ball kicker abandons a well-trained process and substitutes a distinctly different, sub-standard process that is more likely to produce failure.

The substitution is an unconscious choice.

The kicker's unconscious mind is moving toward something familiar and perceived as psychologically safer than alternatives.

What was the kicker's unconscious preference - what was he moving toward?

Usually, it's useful to assume the unconscious moves toward the obvious or most likely real-world result. In this case, let's call it a failure, the anticipation (self-fulfilling prophecy, prediction or seeking) of which we suggested above. Failure may include the resulting emotional experience, such as humiliation, rejection, self-loathing, helplessness, self-deprivation (emptiness) and so on.

Why would anyone unconsciously choose failure?

Because failure and its accompanying emotions may be more familiar than success to some people. Failure can be perceived as the safer choice, even though the associated feelings may not be consciously enjoyable or even acknowledged. Essentially, the kicker may be unconsciously sticking with the devil he knows.

So many of us unconsciously choose failure, then obsess about why, which is a subtle way to deny (refusing to accept) the fact of the failure (and surrounding facts) in the first place. If we first accept the facts, then follow them with an understanding of unconscious processes, we may arrive at some very interesting AHA moments that lead to changing deeply rooted patterns of failure.

About inlpcenter

Mike Bundrant - iNLP Center

Mike Bundrant is a retired psychotherapist who now trainers life coaches, counselors and those seeking personal development. He is a co-founder of the iNLP Center, which teaches students in 71 countries worldwide. 

Mike is also an avid blogger who has been featured on major sites online, with a regular column at PsychCentral.com. Find iNLP Center life coach training and NLP certification training @inlpcenter.

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