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Unfulfilled Prophecies in Sport Performance: Active Inference and the Choking Effect

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Choking effect (choke) is the tendency of expert athletes to underperform in high-stakes situations. We propose an account of choke based on active inference -- a corollary of the free energy principle in cognitive neuroscience. The active inference scheme can explain certain forms of sensorimotor skills disruption in terms of precision-modulated imbalance between sensory input and higherlevel predictions. This model predicts that choke arises when the system fails to attenuate the error signal generated by proprioceptive sensory input. We aim to expand the previous formulations of this model to integrate the contribution of other causal factors, such as confidence erosion, taking into account the empirical evidence emerging from the psychological research on performance disruption in sports. Our expanded model allows us to unify the two main theories of performance disruption in the sport psychology literature, i.e. the self-monitoring/execution focus theory and the distraction/ overload theory, while recognizing that the typical manifestations of choke in sport competitions are best accounted for by self-monitoring/ execution focus theory. We illustrate how active inference explains some experiential aspects of choke that are familiar to sport psychologists and practitioners: choke is a skill-level specific phenomenon; alleviated by ritual-like pre-performance routines; aggravated by personal and contextual factors such as self-confidence erosion and performance anxiety; accompanied by a drop in the attenuation of the sense of agency normally associated with high performance and flow states
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Keywords: active inference; attentional focus; choking effect; execution focus; free energy principle; performance disruption; proprioception; sport skill

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2020

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