Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 201, Issue 4, pp 729–741 | Cite as

Open-loop, closed-loop and compensatory control: performance improvement under pressure in a rhythmic task

  • Felix Ehrlenspiel
  • Kunlin Wei
  • Dagmar Sternad
Research Article


According to explicit monitoring theories, the phenomenon of choking under pressure is due to actors focusing their attention on the execution of the skill. This step-by-step perceptually guided control may then interfere with automatic execution. In order to examine the changes in control at the sensorimotor level, we examined the rhythmic task of ball bouncing which affords detailed quantification of indicators of control based on previous research. The hypothesis was that under psychological pressure perceptually guided control should lead to decreased performance due to over-emphasis on closed-loop control and decreased compensatory control. In two experiments of different difficulty psychological stress was induced via setting up a fake competition. Results showed that, contrary to the hypothesis, performance accuracy and consistency improved together with an increase in compensatory control. Indicators for open- and closed-loop processes did not change. Only under more challenging conditions in Experiment 2, enhanced performance under pressure was accompanied by more active, closed-loop and less passive control. The results are discussed in light of task demands and the continuous rhythmic nature of the task: in more challenging tasks, control appears to be more prone to disturbance due to psychological stress. The different control demands in continuous rhythmic tasks may be less prone to interference due to psychological stress than in discrete tasks.


Choking under pressure Explicit monitoring Dynamical stability Continuous movements 



This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, BCS-0450218, the National Institutes of Health, R01 HD045639, and the Office of Naval Research, N00014-05-1-0844 awarded to Dagmar Sternad. Felix Ehrlenspiel was supported by a grant from the German Academic Exchange Program (DAAD) to visit Pennsylvania State University.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Felix Ehrlenspiel
    • 1
  • Kunlin Wei
    • 2
    • 3
  • Dagmar Sternad
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Sports ScienceTechnische Universität MünchenMunichGermany
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyPeking UniversityBeijingChina
  3. 3.Departments of Physiology, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and Applied MathematicsNorthwestern UniversityChicagoUSA
  4. 4.Departments of Biology, Electrical and Computer Science, and PhysicsNortheastern UniversityBostonUSA

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