Why Even Olympians Choke

Elite athletes don't have to think about what they're doing. So when they do, they mess up.
Shaun White crashes during the halfpipe final. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Russia is nine hours ahead, so we all knew what would happen, and somehow that made it even worse. At first Shaun White—flying tomato, snowboarding legend, two-time Olympic gold medalist—sailed through the halfpipe with characteristic aplomb. Then, there was trouble on one of his first tricks, and he slid down part of the ramp on his rear.

"That's okay!" we thought (or would have thought, had we not already seen the result on Twitter.) There was still time for White to recover the run.

He launched into another stunt, but this time his board snagged and he crashed, tush-first, into the pipe's blue ledge. He sheepishly slid out into the results area, smiling but certainly not pleased with himself. 

White placed fourth, and the Swiss Iouri Podladtchikov became the new king of the "cab doublecork 1440."

True, the pipe's condition was sub-par. The grade of its sides was off, riders complained, and it had been thawed and refrozen just a few hours prior to the competition. Another American, Danny Davis, fell so badly he somersaulted over his board.

And yet: “Everybody had the same pipe to deal with,” Davis said.

The likelier explanation is that White did what countless other Olympians, PGA champions, and SAT-takers have done and will do: He choked. 

But White is still a remarkable snowboarder. And that points to the cruel irony behind choking: The better you are at your sport, the easier it is to screw up by getting inside your own head.

Becoming an elite athlete—or an elite anything—takes some analytical skills. Along with practicing relentlessly, the best athletes evaluate themselves all the time and try to internalize their coaching instructions.

But once you get really good at something, you largely stop thinking about it. In athletes, the instructions for executing all those corkscrews and Salchows and backflips bypass the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls active thought. Instead, the motor cortex and basal ganglia take over, and the process becomes automatic. To White, flipping through the air while attached to a plastic board is like breathing. 

Sian Beilock, a psychologist who has studied and written about choking, argues that when we're under a tremendous amount of pressure, anxiety over the prospect of failure floods the prefrontal cortex and overwhelms the brain's capacity to do what should be second-nature.

"If we’re doing a task that normally operates largely outside of conscious awareness, such as an easy golf swing, what screws us up is the impulse to think about and control our actions," Beilock told Discover magazine. "Suddenly we’re too attentive to what we’re doing, and all the training that has improved our motor skills is for naught, since our conscious attention is essentially hijacking motor memory.

She points out that in football, time-outs have the ability to "ice" the kicker, forcing him to cogitate on his movements to a degree he otherwise wouldn't. 

There's also evidence that the brain's left hemisphere plays a role in making us over-think. Automatic performance behaviors seem to be controlled by the right hemisphere, and "rumination" by the left. Because the right hemisphere controls movements of the left side of the body, one study found that athletes who squeezed a ball in their left hand before competing were less likely to choke. The squeezing somehow helped activate the automatic portion of the brain on the right.

Iouri Podladtchikov celebrates while Shaun White of the U.S. looks on. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

"Rumination can interfere with concentration and performance of motor task," the study author, Juergen Beckmann from the Technical University of Munich, said in a statement. "While it may seem counterintuitive, consciously trying to keep one's balance is likely to produce imbalance, as was seen in some sub-par performances by gymnasts during the Olympics in London."

What's more, almost everything about the Olympic atmosphere seems to make choking more likely. For some reason, friendlier, bigger audiences seem to increase performance anxiety. Putting money or glory on the line also heightens the tension and cultivates a fear of disappointment.

When White prepared for his turn the other night in Sochi, the audience roared. The press had set expectations sky-high. And White might have been thinking about how his winning streak could be shattered with a single run. And it was. 

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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