The explicit monitoring theory proposes that pressure causes a performer to pay attention to and attempt to control the automaticity of a well-learned skill (Baumeister, 1984; Beilock & Carr, 2001; Lewis & Linder, 1997). For novice performers, focusing on the process is necessary and beneficial to performance; however, for expert performers, focusing on an automatic process results in choking under pressure, unless one is accustomed to performing under self-focused conditions (i.e., they have undergone self-consciousness training; Baumeister, 1984; Beilock & Carr, 2001; Reeves, Acharya, Lidor, & Tenenbaum, in review). Research on attention and performance has only looked at performance on a one-dimensional level (i.e., only looking at speed) and has failed to include all aspects of performance in one comprehensive study. Consequently, the purpose of the present study was threefold: (a) to determine when and where choking under pressure occurs, (b) to conclude whether performing in front of external evaluators or trying to meet a criterion induces greater performance pressure, resulting in performance decrements, and (c) to introduce a conceptual scheme of choking under pressure.
Participants consisted of sub-elite and novice soccer players from Leon, Lincoln and Chiles High Schools. Participants were randomly assigned to one of four attentional focus conditions: internal, relevant (i.e., participants focused on their dribbling foot); internal, non-relevant (i.e., participants focused on their thoughts); external, relevant (i.e., participants focused on the soccer ball); and external, non-relevant (i.e., participants focused on crowd noise); while dribbling a soccer ball through a slalom course with their dominant and non-dominant feet, during low pressure, while trying to meet a criterion, and while performing in front of external evaluation. Results combined performance speed and accuracy to produce an overall measure of performance outcome (i.e., speed/accuracy tradeoff). The speed/accuracy tradeoffs exemplified an external attentional focus (i.e., focusing on crowd noise and the ball) to be most beneficial to sub-elite performance, while a relevant attentional focus (i.e., focusing on their foot and the ball) was most beneficial to novice performance. Furthermore, sub-elite participants were found to perform similarly to expert soccer players (rather than novices) regardless of attentional focus condition or task difficulty. So, when and where does choking under pressure occur? It appears that participants focusing internally on non-relevant aspects of performance (i.e., one’s thoughts, or the arm in soccer) choke under pressure, regardless of expertise-level or task difficulty. In addition, expert and sub-elite participants choke under pressure while focusing internally, on relevant aspects of performance (i.e., foot in soccer, arm in a throwing task); while novices choke under pressure while focusing externally on non-relevant aspects of performance (i.e., crowd noise), regardless of task difficulty. Furthermore, it appears that performing in front of external evaluators induces greater performance decrements than trying to meet a criterion; i.e., external pressure was more debilitating to performance than internal pressure. These findings support the explicit monitoring theory of choking under pressure and expand the current literature on attention and performance.
Future research needs to replicate the present study to include expert performers to ensure the reliability and validity of the conceptual scheme of choking presented in Figures 28a and 28b; and use this schema to design an intervention to prevent paradoxical performance effects, allowing all performers to reach their highest potential.