Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The psychology of choking...

First and foremost, for once I'm not referring to Autoerotic Asphyxiation. No, instead I am referring to the tendency to lose one's nerve at the time it is needed most.

The BBC recently posted a fantastic article on the psychology of choking in sports, that actually draws a lot of parallels to wargaming (and in fact any task one does a large number of times).

I highly recommend reading the article itself, but here are the guts of it:

"In effect, experts and novices use two completely different brain systems. Long practice enables experienced performers to encode a skill in implicit memory, and they perform almost without thinking about it.

This is called expert-induced amnesia. Novices, on the other hand, wield the explicit system, consciously monitoring what they are doing as they build the neural framework supporting the task.

But now suppose an expert were to suddenly find himself using the "wrong" system. It wouldn't matter how good he was because he would now be at the mercy of the explicit system.

The highly sophisticated skills encoded in the subconscious part of his brain would count for nothing. He would find himself striving for victory using neural pathways he last used as a novice.

This is the neurophysiology of choking. It is triggered when we get so anxious that we seize conscious control over a task that should be executed automatically."

What you can do about it is another matter altogether, but as it is with most things - knowing what you're up against is half the battle. Choking is a huge part of the NZ 40k scene, where I've seen some people choking for over half a decade now and not being able to get past this hurdle.

I also think that this has a lot to do with why you see the people who never change their list by much progressively do better and better, to a greater effect than just the impact you would expect to see from getting more practice.

The original article can be found over at the BBC here.
It was originally written particularly focussing on some likely upcoming penalty shootouts in football, and took some time to reference Rory McIlroy's recent public implosion, but is well worth checking out.


  1. I am the Patron Saint of Sporting Chokers. I support St. Kilda (three GFs in the past two years, winning none), the Warriors (enuf said) and it pains me to say Liverpool (except for one fantastic night in Istanbul).

    This weekend all three teams won on the same weekend. The first time in 2011 this has happened. We're back!

    And this is the perennial of chokers everywhere - blind optimism.

    Personally I like tio think of myself as someone who doesn't choke. I just follow sports teams that do.

  2. Best Chokes Ever:

    Newcastle in 1995/96 Premier League
    AC Milan in 2005 UCL Final
    Greg Norman in 1986 Masters
    Alastair Nicholson at 1992 Olympics
    All Blacks at 1991-2007 World Cups

  3. This is an article written by a Sports "non-psychologist" and contains no peer review or data to back it up.

    This is a bunch of crap, masquerading as science. Pseudo science for the loss. I would put more faith in the Moon man.

  4. Most scientists will tell you that psychology in general is full of shit, not even worthy of being labeled psuedo-science, and that all psychologists are a complete and utter waste of human matter.

    If you follow your point to the extreme end logical conclusion, at that point does it matter who wrote it? :>

  5. At any rate, I figured it couldnt hurt to get people thinking about it, seeing as choking is a bit of a 'key feature' of top end 40k over here.

  6. Yeah, I nearly choked when I read a psychology paper that said the experimental results were interpreted from a feminist perspective ( I would have assumed interpreting statistical significance would be better done from a mathematical perspective).

    I would expect that people choking would not in fact be that common, but would tend to stick in your mind and certainly gain more coverage, leading you to think it was common.

    That said, the guys theory seems sound enough to warrant research.