Aug. 13, 2004 -- It's every athlete's nightmare: Choking under pressure. Some can rise to the occasion, while equally talented athletes crumble. Why? It's likely due to the amount of "chatter" in their heads, researchers say.
A new study -- considered "groundbreaking" by some experts -- shows that athletes who can get "in the zone" are better able to suppress or ignore negative thoughts, and have higher self-esteem and confidence.
Athletes with neurotic tendencies -- who dramatize events as catastrophic -- have more negative thoughts and a harder time hitting the zone. This intrusive chatter is distracting and results in the athlete's "thinking, instead of doing," says researcher Roland A. Carlstedt, PhD, a clinical sports psychologist with Capella University in New York City.
He presented his findings at the recent American Psychological Association meeting held in Honolulu.
Carlstedt's study involved 250 athletes in basketball, baseball/softball, soccer, tennis, and golf and compared brain activity coping abilities with 40 nonathletes. He analyzed their performance at key moments in competition. He also gave each a battery of tests to determine various tendencies, such as hypnotic ability, neuroticism, and ability to cope and repress negative thoughts.
Those who were high in hypnotic ability showed an extraordinary capability to intensely focus on the task at hand. This can pay off in great performance. It can also make athletes vulnerable to their internal thoughts; they can't shake the negative thoughts, so performance suffers.
Winning athletes possessed this hypnotic ability, but were not neurotic. They showed great skill in repressing negative thoughts and keeping their attention on the job at hand -- a left-brain activity.
Those who crumbled also had the hypnotic ability, but their negative thoughts took over, especially at the most critical moments -- a right-brain activity.
The ability to stop the transfer of intrusive thoughts -- from the right brain to the left brain -- is a crucial part of staying focused through crucial moments of competition, says Carlstedt.