Choking under pressure in self-paced sport: revisiting the effects of attentional interference in preparation and execution

Roberts, L 2018, Choking under pressure in self-paced sport: revisiting the effects of attentional interference in preparation and execution, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Science, RMIT University.


Document type: Thesis
Collection: Theses

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Title Choking under pressure in self-paced sport: revisiting the effects of attentional interference in preparation and execution
Author(s) Roberts, L
Year 2018
Abstract Researchers investigating the nature of expertise in sport have carefully studied psychological processes that occur before a motor action (i.e., in preparation) and psychological processes that occur during a motor action (i.e., in execution). This work has identified a series of preparation advantages that experts hold over novices, such as more efficient visual scanning, superior anticipation and better self-regulation. It has also identified a series of execution advantages that experts hold over novices, such as increased proprioceptive awareness, greater ability to absorb environmental information and superior mid-movement adaptability. A less understood but intrinsically related field, choking under pressure, is concerned with sudden expertise loss, triggered by anxiety, in high-stakes situations. While the study of expertise has closely considered both the preparation and execution phases, this thesis proposes that two influential kinds of choking research - studies based on dual-task experiments and studies based on self-report - have been inattentive to one phase or the other, and accordingly have presented a relatively incomplete picture of the phenomenon. The arguments made throughout the thesis are that a) dual-task experiments have superficially addressed the prospect that mental interference during the preparation phase could cause choking and b) that studies of choking relying on self-report have superficially addressed the prospect that mental interference during the execution phase could cause choking. Accordingly, this PhD research revisited these paradigms with a more detailed focus on information processing during preparation and execution, with the expectation of a new pattern of evidence for the prevailing theories. To this end, two studies were conducted using the self-paced activity of golf. Study 1 addressed how cognitive and perceptual interference during the preparation and execution phases of the golf swing differentially affected skilled motor performance. Study 2 addressed how golfers rationalised choking under pressure when separately considering the preparation and execution phases.

The thesis had a second critical focus: a complementary body of observational research focused on the behavioural correlates of performance, pressure and choking in self-paced sports. The thesis develops the argument that this kind of research has also been incomplete. Some observational studies have considered the relationship between preparation behaviour (e.g., consistency) and performance but without considering pressure. Others have considered the relationship between pressure and preparation behaviour but without directly linking any changes to performance. Finally, some have considered how behaviour under pressure influences performance but without taking a behavioural baseline. In response, Study 3 integrated these elements and addressed how pressure observably influenced golfers¿ preparation behaviour, and whether or not any behavioural changes predicted better or worse performance.

In study 1, 24 skilled golfers (handicap<=6) undertook a series of golf approach shots (60m-150m) into a golf simulator while cognitive or perceptual dual-tasks separately interfered with their preparation or execution. The results showed that golfers largely withstood interference, but that distance control of the shortest shots deteriorated when preparation was disrupted. Cluster analysis indicated that interference to short-shot preparation elicited a similar number of cognitive mistakes (e.g., poor decision-making) and execution mistakes (e.g., poor timing). The results suggest that off-task thought during preparation can impair distance control on shots requiring conscious adjustment (e.g., shortening the swing) and further, that several mechanisms may explain this loss of control.

In study 2, 80 golfers of varied skill level (handicap 18 to professional) completed a mixed-methods questionnaire that separately enquired about normal and pressure-affected thinking during the preparation and execution phases. In reflecting on normal thought processes, many golfers, across all skill levels, indicated a technical focus during execution; a finding that sits uncomfortably with the group of choking theories often called self-focus. When reflecting on the execution phase in past chokes, several forms of conscious processing and irrelevant thought were rated as similarly problematic. Factor analysis of these ratings suggested that golfers often represent choking as an interplay between worry about the outcome (before or during the execution) and unhelpful conscious control during the execution. The results suggest qualification to the prevailing view that overactive conscious processing is an unusual rationalisation for choking in highly-practiced motor skills.

In study 3, 24 golfers (the same as from study 1) were observed as they hit approach shots into a simulator under conditions of lower and higher pressure. The results revealed that golfers collected information about the shot (e.g., target information) over a longer period when experiencing pressure-related worry, when facing a longer shot and when performing relatively well in a condition. While longer information collection periods did not reliably predict superior performance, a secondary analysis suggested that slowing down this component might play a role in saving performance under anxiety. The results further indicated that golfers freely varied their characteristic preparation behaviours (e.g., changing the number of practice swings or settling behaviours like waggling the club). This flexibility was evident regardless of the situation (e.g., the level of pressure or distance from the hole) and did not reliably affect performance. The results suggest qualification to the popular view that preparation in self-paced skills like golf needs to be highly consistent.

In collating these results and other contemporary findings, a model was produced to map how the interplay between compromised information processing in preparation and execution can cause choking. Four pathways between a disrupted preparation and failed motor execution were specified, along with future studies to examine the various predictions. To finish, existing choking interventions were reviewed and new possibilities were offered. In sum, the thesis combined three kinds of research to map how pressure-induced attentional failures in preparation may set a course for motor skill failures in execution, ways to further test this, and possibilities for mitigation.
Degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Institution RMIT University
School, Department or Centre Science
Subjects Sport and Exercise Psychology
Applied Statistics
Keyword(s) Choking under pressure
Distraction
Self-focus
Pre-performance routine
Motor skill expertise
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