Research on the physiology of “choking” under pressure suggests that the reason isn’t that you think about it too much, but that you think with the wrong parts of your brain.
On those (unfortunately rare) occasions when I’ve had to sign more than about a dozen books, the first few flow naturally and reinforce the impression of literary greatness. There comes a point, though, when my hand takes on a life of its own, and I can’t finish the signature. Signature becomes scrawl. Choke.
Research indicates that the parts of the brain that smooth out our previously learned actions — areas like the cerebellum and the premotor cortex of the cerebrum — get overridden by the prefrontal cortex of the cerebrum where our conscious thought resides. The prefrontal cortex is great for thinking, but when it starts micromanaging the cerebellum, disaster often ensues.
As Catherine Caruso, the author of Super Bowl Psychology: Why Athletes “Choke”–and How to Avoid It, observes:
The cerebellum, the area below and behind the cerebrum responsible for motor control, coordinates complex actions when we are on autopilot. But as soon as we start focusing on the individual steps, the cerebral cortex, which controls higher-order conscious thought, takes over and we stumble into trouble.
The article focuses on NFL field goal kickers, some of whom practically never miss during the regular season but sometimes can’t even hit the stands to win a playoff game. Put more simply, their Fingerspitzengefühl breaks down at just the wrong moment.
What about non-physical meanings of Fingerspitzengefühl? The term came to prominence in war, where some commanders appeared to have a mystical ability to sense or feel the flow of a chaotic battlefield and exploit this knowledge to deceive and surprise a larger enemy. Is this also largely the effect of the cerebellum? I don’t know, but it’s certainly worth some research.
One indication that similar processes might be involved is that both the physical and mental forms of Fingerspitzengefühl are developed the same way: years of patient practice that eventually enable intuitive action. The key point is that practice is largely a conscious activity, that is, led by the cerebral cortex. Over time, as it becomes more automatic, it’s like it migrates somewhere else in the brain.
In other words, is this a physiological justification for Boyd’s OODA “loop” sketch:
The idea is that the “Observe-Orient-Hypothesis-Test” loop is how we learn, how we program the smoother, more intuitive system indicated by the “Implicit Guidance and Control” feed from Orientation to Action. IG&C isn’t purely automatic, though. The cerebellum doesn’t appear to take full command. It’s more like it acts to smooth out previously learned actions without conscious effort. Our prefrontal cortex is still involved, and still learning, it’s just not screwing things up.
The reasons for bringing physiology into the OODA loop aren’t to portray Boyd as some kind of prophet or visionary (fMRI, the most common technique for mapping brain activity, was invented shortly before his death) but to suggest that with a more complete understanding of how the brain works, we can devise more effective ways to create and employ Fingerspitzengefühl and even to invent something better as part of the organizational climate.
In the meantime, how do we avoid choking? You could try meditation and mindful-based stress reduction. The article itself suggests that you try to distract the prefrontal cortex (more accurately, the prefrontal cortex distracts the prefrontal cortex):
She also recommends not dwelling on the task ahead of time, adding that it can be helpful to distract yourself by singing a song or repeating a key word: “Something that takes your mind off the mechanics of what you’re doing.” Her work has shown that in high-stress situations, the best athletes are able to succeed by focusing on the overall outcome rather than on the individual steps.
One thing you must do is practice under conditions as close as possible to what you’re going to face on game day. This is one reason the military, the best ones at any rate, use free play exercises — unscripted mock wars — to simulate combat conditions as closely as possible. Our agency, J. Addams & Partners, offers this kind of training to clients who expect to face a hostile audience at shareholders meetings or press conferences (we employ a semi-tame, real life reporter).*
The article was published in Scientific American on the Friday before the Superbowl. It ends with the prescient, and, if you’re a Pats fan, delicious observation: “Will they choke?” Referring to place kickers, but …
*In the 10th episode of Season 3 of Mozart in the Jungle, at minute 3, Hailey is practicing for her audition while her friend Lizzie walks around her screaming insults. Conveys the idea nicely.