Last Sunday night during Game 3 of the San Jose Sharks/Colorado Avalanche NHL Western Conference playoff series, the Sharks took three times as many shots as the Avalanche, kept the puck on Colorado’s end, and generally owned the game. Nonetheless, the score remained at 0-0 almost a minute into overtime. And then the worst possible dose of bad luck (or insane miscalculation?) befell San Jose’s Dan Boyle: he inadvertently scored the winning goal for the Colorado Avalanche. According to CBSSports.com columnist Ray Ratto, the deflection of Boyle’s clearing pass to defenseman Douglas Murray, “to the amazement of all living things… whipped into a tiny hole between the right post and San Jose goalie Evgeni Nabokov.”
Thing is, Dan Boyle is in pretty good company. Time after time, we witness acts of “choking under pressure” – especially in sports, but also in other anxiety-eliciting domains of life such as during testing situations, presenting to a group of colleagues or superiors, or performing a musical instrument. Choking, otherwise known as failing in the clutch or performing at suboptimal levels under pressure conditions, happens to the best of us and social psychologist Roy Baumeister has determined the conditions under which the phenomenon is most likely to occur.
Baumeister labels four pressure variables – audience pressure, competition, performance-contingent rewards and punishments, and ego-relevance of the task – as determinants of choking; needless to say, all of these variables were present in full-force at Dan Boyle’s mishap on Sunday. Further, Baumeister notes that choking may result from a self-focused attention that interferes with the execution of automatic, routinized processes (such as, oh I don’t know, moving around a puck during a professional hockey game in which you are a professional hockey player). In particular, Baumeister suggests that pressure makes the person want to do well, so the performer focuses conscious attention on the process of performance. However, since skills are responses that are overlearned and automatic, attending to them consciously interferes with or inhibits them; conscious attention to an automatic behavior paradoxically causes misalignment between brain and behavior and, frequently, ultimate failure at the task. Other theories suggest that having to perform under pressure causes a self-awareness that precludes awareness of the environment in which one is surrounded, thereby causing the performer to fail to process task-relevant information.
Whatever the case may be, no matter how we social psychologists attempt to rationalize and intellectualize the antecedents of choking, we’re sure that none of this is making Dan Boyle feel any better. Good thing he has an old Stanley Cup lying around somewhere to make up for it.