Can Science Help Performers Who ‘Choke’ Under Pressure?

Scientists looking into the phenomenon of reduced performance under pressure say they have zeroed in on its underlying mechanisms. And, the same researchers say, there may be techniques to help everyone from athletes to concert pianists do their best work when the pressure is turned up.


Often known in sports culture as “choking,” the potentially deleterious effects of pressure on performance span a wide range of professions. As a result, opera singers can miss a critical note, actors can flub a big line, and athletes can miss a key play all because of the increased attention on, and significance of, their particular activity.

Now, a group of researchers from the Sony Computer Sciences Lab in Japan have taken a closer look at choking, or what they term the “yips,” in hopes of not only understanding how it happens, but also to potentially devise techniques to minimize or even eliminate the effects of pressure altogether.


To actually create a real-world performance situation with added external stresses, the researchers enlisted a group of concert pianists and had them play a complicated piece of music. During each performance, the researchers had a second concert pianist who was tasked with evaluating the performance stand right next to the performer and watch him closely. To add to the tension, the researchers placed a video camera directly in front of the performer and recorded the performance for later review. Finally, each performing pianist wore headphones where the audio playback of their own performance was on a slight, yet discernable, delay.

“The experiment was conducted with 11 pianists,” explains the press release announcing the research, “and we found a significant decrease in the accuracy of the timing of keystrokes with the presentation of delayed auditory feedback, only during performances in which the pianists were under psychological stress.”

In short, the pianists performed normally without the added pressure even with the presence of delayed audio, but when the camera and evaluator were added, they began to “choke.”

With these results in hand, the research team ran a second test to see if they could find a solution to the choking phenomenon. This time, 30 pianists were used, separated into three groups of 10.

The first group received specialized training on how to ignore the delay in timing of the production of sounds routed to their headphones during a performance. The second group was trained to play at a slightly faster speed to compensate for the audio delay, and the third group served as a control group, with no specialized training given.

Once all three groups had received “tens of minutes” in their particular training method, each individual pianist was once again asked to play under the added pressure circumstances of an evaluator, a camera and an audio delay. As the researchers had hoped, their specialized training seemed to make a difference, helping the group that had learned how to ignore the audio delay to perform with the same accuracy as if there was no added pressure at all.

“We found that only pianists in the delay-ignore group showed no performance disruption under pressure after the training,” the study authors explain. “This suggests that training normalized the pianists’ ability to integrate auditory perception and motion, and thereby pianists could prevent erroneous finger movements in response to erroneous auditory information on the rhythm, even under psychological strain.”

As for the underlying mechanism at play, they researchers theorize that “since the delay-ignore group was trained not to respond excessively to abnormal auditory stimuli during performance, the training has normalized the mental and physical functions that had been responding with an excessive degree of sensitivity to mistakes detected by the ear under psychological pressure.”

Basically, by learning to shut out the delay, they had also effectively shut out the pressure from the observer and the camera. No choking, just smooth ivory stroking.


Published in the journal Communications Biology, the research focused on piano players rather than athletes or other high-stress performers. However, the team behind the work believe their results may be applicable to all of those professions, as long as the methods of ignoring certain pressure-inducing stimuli are customized to that sport or performance environment.

“These findings may assist in the development of new theoretical approaches to training against choking under pressure and training systems for optimal performance under psychological stress,” the researchers write, “and to elucidate the neuroscientific, physiological, and psychological mechanisms behind problems such as performance anxiety and “the yips” (symptoms of tension and anxiety in which actions that could be performed smoothly in the normal situation cannot be performed as expected).”

Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter: @plain_fiction