Office of Learning & Organizational Development

Don’t Choke.

In just five minutes of watching ESPN, we see celebrity sports personalities who practice seemingly unlimited hours and who get paid boundless amounts of money…choke. Any Atlanta Falcons fan is still wondering where they threw their remote in the fit of rage after their team blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl.

So, how does it happen? How do proven winners on track to win seemingly screw up the very thing that they are good at doing?

The answer that research presents? They want to win too badly.

Researchers from University College London studied students in a contest to determine what happened in the participants’ brains when they psychologically choked. Their findings revealed that when students were motivated by financial rewards, the deeper their desire to win, the more likely they were to choke as a result of dopamine-fuelled motivation. In essence, wanting to win too badly can actually have negative effects on your performance in the form of a high-level screw up.

Incentives such as money, but also power and status, ignite the dopamine production centers in your brain in the presence of a potential reward. When your brain produces too much dopamine your body can loose its sense of calm and go into overdrive. Too little dopamine and your body can feel anxious and lack motivation to execute the task at all.

What’s the secret to a smooth performance? Ian Robertson, neuroscience researcher, suggests putting yourself in the “Goldilocks Zone.” You need to train yourself to want to win with just the right amount of desire and motivation. Starting with remaining calm and exercising self-control, you can gain power over your mind and reduce your chances of choking when winning at something means the most to you.