Why do players choke?
Today’s post is in a series of posts dedicated to hitters who can benefit from a routine prior to their at-bats. The prior three posts related to this topic are linked below. The final one in the series will be Friday.
- What is your hitting routine?
- What are YOUR hitters doing on deck?
- A hitter’s routine and muscle memory
If you watched the video in the last post (A hitter’s routine and muscle memory) then you learned that our procedural memories like throwing, walking up steps, hitting, swinging a golf club, running, etc. are largely stored in a few areas in our brains called the basal ganglia, the motor cortex, and the cerebellum. These areas direct and coordinate movements outside our awareness that have been practiced and mastered. This process of sending mastered movements to areas outside our awareness frees up our conscious awareness to new or novel things that we see in front of us. In hitting, that means the situation, the outs, the count, etc. We think about the new situation but when it becomes time to swing, different parts of our brain kick into gear and allow us to swing the bat according to how we’ve taught the body to swing.
This works well until we screw with that natural process. And that explains “choking.”
Think of riding a bike. When you start learning to do it, you are consciously thinking of every movement you make. It’s quirky, slow, and filled with falls and balance issues. When you get the hang of it, the coordination involved is sent to the basal ganglia and the cerebellum where it is basically stored forever. Now, when you jump on a bike, you don’t even think about it. You just ride. Your awareness is now allowed to focus on what’s in front of you – cars, bumps, debris, etc. – that may be a problem. But what do you think would happen if you went back to thinking about and analyzing every single movement needed to ride a bike? Answer: you would screw with the natural functioning of the brain. The thinking part of the brain (the frontal lobe) would interfere with the other parts of the brain (the basal ganglia and cerebellum) that are now fully capable of performing the task with no effort or thought involved. You’d go back to being more quirky, slow, and filled with falls and balance issues. Sound familiar? It should because that’s the same thing that happens when hitters let their “thinking brain” interfere with their “doing brain.”
What is commonly referred to as “choking” is simply two parts of the brain fighting against one another. When a hitter practices, he usually is calm which allows his “doing brain” to work and leads him to swing smoothly and naturally. Just like riding a bike. When the pressure kicks in, hitters sometimes think too much which disrupts the “doing brain” from working smoothly. They analyze things too much which throws a wrench in the natural process of movements the body has mastered.
All this science is why it is important for hitters to narrow their thinking the closer they get to the stage of hitting that puts them at home plate. Narrow the thinking and allow the “doing brain” more space to work more efficiently and effectively. The different stages are listed and explained in the second post (What are YOUR hitters doing on deck?) linked above.
The last post in this series will give a couple specific tips for hitters who want to stop that demon in their head from thinking too much and interfering in what their body already is trained to do.