About 10 years ago, I was a huge fan of the boxing reality TV show titled "The Contender". At the time, one of the trainers was talking with a fighter about putting pressure on the opponent by moving forward and throwing punches. The advise worked for the fighter and he went on to win the fight. One factor that played out in his favor was this: human beings sometimes falter under pressure.
We line in an age that is obsessed with success. There are an abundance of resources out there that outline a number of ways by which talented individuals overcame some sort of an obstacle to achieve success. This is well documented. What is not well documented is the other side of the spectrum. Those in which talented people sometimes fail...or choke...or panic...
When you first learn something, it is explicit in nature. You think it through, you perform the task in a slow and deliberate manner. But as you gain experience, get better at your task, or feel more comfortable with it, a new learning system takes over. Enter the implicit system. This is what some consider "motor memory". You essentially start to perform the task without thinking. Over time, you don't really even notice that you are doing what you are doing. It takes place outside of awareness. Under conditions of stress, however, the explicit system sometimes takes over. This is when you have to think about every little detail. Things that once felt natural now take time to decipher. You are back to being a beginner. That’s what it means to choke. You begin to think about every menial task. You will look slow, deliberate, and would not able to keep up with the competition.
Panic is something else all together. It is a physiological response done without thinking about the consequences. It is the opposite of choking. Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart. Panic also causes something known as perceptual narrowing. This is when you obsess on one thing that you fail to take in all the perceptual cues that are made available to you. This reminds me of a quote from Drew Brees in his book Coming Back Stronger: "If you are worried about the mountain in the distance, you might trip over the molehill right in front of you". It is important to take in the entire landscape of the situation before performing the next task!
Next time you watch a sporting event and the announcers are discussing a "colossal collapse", try to identify what is really going on. Only those who care about how well they perform ever feel the pressure of the threat. The bodies response to stress will effect not only the implicit system but also the explicit learning system. The usual prescription for failure–to work harder and take the test more seriously–would only make their problems worse. Had he choked, he would have reverted to the mode of explicit learning. His movements would have become markedly slower and less fluid. He would have gone back to the mechanical, self-conscious application of the lessons he had first received. He would have looked like a novice. If he panicked, perceptual narrowing may have occurred which could lead to myriad of issues. Now, don't get me wrong, pressure is an obstacle that anyone can overcome. Be aware, be diligent, and understand that it happens to the greatest performers. Like John Maxwell once said, "Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn", and make an effort to not let it happen again!