This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

The Effects of Implicit Learning, Practicing with the Expectation of Teaching, and Anxiety Training on Motor Performance Under Psychological Pressure




Cabral, Daniel

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation




This dissertation describes a research program focused on investigating learning strategies that could prevent individuals from showing inferior motor performance when performing under psychological pressure, a phenomenon known as choking under pressure. Choking has been studied from the perspective of different theories. Each theory attempts to explain the choking phenomenon by different mechanisms, such as distraction, self-focus, and perceived threat. Collectively, this dissertation investigates strategies based on these mechanisms that could potentially prevent choking. The first two chapters focus on the reinvestment theory, which suggests that anxiety leads to the disruption of the skill’s performance due to the individual reinvesting attentional resources in skill execution by using declarative knowledge acquired earlier during practice, which reduces movement automaticity and hinders performance. Theoretically, by limiting the amount of declarative knowledge acquired during skill acquisition (e.g., implicit learning), individuals may be able to maintain performance under pressure. In the first chapter, a meta-analytic approach was used to investigate whether employing an implicit learning strategy, as opposed to explicit learning, during the practice of a motor skill would prevent choking under pressure on subsequent low- and high-pressure post-tests. Results showed that participants who learned a motor skill implicitly performed better under a high-pressure condition than a low-pressure post-test, whereas participants in the comparison group performed similarly between conditions. The second chapter is an attempt to test whether the benefits of practicing a motor skill with the expectation of teaching it to another person are preserved when the skill is performed under pressure if the skill is also practiced with an implicit learning strategy. This research follows prior findings that expecting to teach enhances skill learning, but also leads to choking under pressure. My results revealed that participants who practiced with the expectation of teaching and used an implicit learning technique (i.e., analogy instructions) did not choke under pressure from low- to high-pressure post-test, whereas those who had the expectation of teaching and learned through a set of explicit instructions choked from low- to high-pressure. The third chapter investigates the effect of anxiety training (AT; i.e., practicing a skill under enhanced anxiety levels) on subsequent performance during low-, mild- and high-pressure post-test. This chapter was based on three different theories of choking, namely the reinvestment theory, attentional control theory, and biopsychosocial mode challenge and threat. All of them are speculated to explain the benefit of AT to performance under pressure. Accordingly, I measured mechanistic variables related to each theory (i.e., movement reinvestment, mental effort, and perceived challenge/threat). Participants were assigned to either an AT or control group. The former practiced a motor skill under mild levels of pressure, whereas the latter practiced the same motor skill but with no pressure. Results showed that the AT group preserved performance across the post-tests, whereas the control group choked from low- to mild-, and from mild- to high-pressure post-tests. However, I did not find evidence that the mechanistic variables explained the relationship between AT and choking. Taken together, the studies described in this dissertation show two potential interventions to prevent choking under pressure. First, as shown in the first two chapters, implicit learning seems to be an effective intervention to prevent choking (chapter 1) and to maintain the benefits of expecting to teach when performing under pressure (chapter 2). Second, practicing a motor skill under mild levels of anxiety is advantageous not only during a post-test with similar anxiety levels as the practice phase but also under a post-test with enhanced levels of anxiety, suggesting that the benefits of AT are transferrable to higher-stakes environments (chapter 3).