Can Science Explain Why Athletes Choke?

Several scientists share their thoughts on why big athletes sometimes come up short in high-pressure situations. The basic gist: stress causes them to overanalyze.

Most iconic sports moments feature athletes going above and beyond to achieve victory. Kirk Gibson's 1988 World Series home run. Michael Jordan having the game of his life while suffering from the flu in 1997. Arsenal's Michael Thomas connecting with a last-minute winner to secure the Premiership in 1989. These moments are most memorable because the athletes involved emerged amidst pressure to achieve legendary triumph.


Equally iconic, though much sadder, are moments when athletes choke on the biggest stage in high pressure situations. Bill Buckner. Chris Webber. Greg Norman. Each of these names lives on in a certain degree of ignominy, one moment of bad play overshadowing otherwise terrific careers. But what was it about those moments that caused these athletes to underperform? Is there a science to choking?

That's what writer Danielle Elliot sought to answer in her recent article in Pacific Standard. Elliot asked several specialists about high pressure situations and whether there's a magic bullet sort of reason to explain choking. Dr. Art Markman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas, explained to Elliot how high stress situations affect a person's working memory, lessening the amount of information the brain can process at once. A second effect of stress is that the brain overcompensates by overanalyzing situations. Under pressure, neurons on the left side of the brain fire more rapidly than those on the right. The left side of the brain handles analytics; the right controls motor skills. This becomes troublesome for an athlete whose prowess relies on muscle memory. 

Elliot's article, which is a worthy read (and linked again below), addresses the major counter-argument -- how come everybody doesn't choke then? Is it just certain players who fall apart? Do others have the mythical "clutch" gene?

There's no way to test that, at least not yet, so popular tough-guy (i.e. BS) conjecture about "softness" tends to win out, despite there not being proof for that either. Here's a theory: maybe a lot of it is just a result of chance and small sample size. Athletes are always operating under pressure. Athletes will inevitably make mistakes. Sometimes it happens when you're watching, something when you're not. Sometimes an athlete bumbles through high-pressure stress and becomes Derek Jeter. Other times they're not as fortunate and become Bill Buckner. Who knows?

Some bouts of choking can almost certainly be chalked up to giving into pressure. The overanalyzation explanation makes a lot of sense in that case.

But then again, other examples may very well just be rough luck.

Read more at Pacific Standard

Photo credit:  Maxisport / Shutterstock

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.