Choking under pressure is even more conspicuous in professional golf. It's not uncommon to see a pro drive the ball around 300 yards and then miss a one-foot putt.
Just two years ago, golfer Jason Dufner blew a four-stroke lead with four holes to play, losing the prestigious PGA Championship in a devastating demonstration of choking under pressure.
But this year, he won it.
Researchers generally concentrate on two different explanations for why experts choke.
Chicago's Beilock believes it boils down to two opposing theories: Either the person worries so much even a well-practiced talent can fail, or he or she concentrates so much on the task at hand that the brain overrides the well-trained muscles.
UCSB's Lee, in the first of a series of experiments, is searching for neurological clues about what, exactly, is going on in the brain. He and his colleagues used a valuable new technique, called transcranial magnetic stimulation, to briefly manipulate two areas of the prefrontal cortex -- the relatively young part of the brain often cited as the reason we humans are different from other animals.
The scientists stimulated the part of the prefrontal cortex that performs executive functions -- the "take charge" part of the brain -- to see if that had any effect on the part of the cortex responsible for muscle memory. They found that if they "turned up" activity in the executive region, then activity in the muscle memory area decreased. If they turned down the activity in the executive area, the muscle memory region became more active.
That suggests to the researchers that thinking too much may indeed have a bad impact on our ability to repeat a task that we've mastered over the years, whether it be hitting a golf ball or giving a speech.
The take-charge part of the brain "is exerting its control when it's not really necessary," Lee said.
So what's a body to do?
Chicago's Beilock says it may help to just figure out a way to distract yourself. Maybe instead of thinking so hard about making that free throw, Shaq should have hummed a little tune.
That's right. Just humming a tune might turn disaster into triumph, she contends.