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Choking and The Yips

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  1. On the habitualist side are Dreyfus (2005, 2007a, b), Beilock (2007, 2010) and (Beilock and Carr 2001, 2004; Beilock et al. 2002); intellectualism is defended in various ways by McDowell (2007), Stanley (2011), Sutton (2007), Sutton et al. (2011), Montero (2010) and Fridland (2013).

  2. The personal level involves the kind of mental activities than can be conscious. I have not equated the personal level with conscious thought, however, because states like ordinary intentions, beliefs and desires can certainly make a difference to what we do even when they are not being consciously entertained. But at first pass we can distinguish personal-level mental activities as those which can be brought to consciousness, even if they aren’t always.

  3. The relevant sense of ‘keeping in mind’ will be explored further in Section 7 below.

  4. How can these movements be sub-personal, if (as I allow) they can be consciously controlled, as when the athletes first learn or later refine their skills? (Cf footnote 2 above.) The answer is to recognize that similar movements are nevertheless in different behavioural categories when they are performed (a) as sub-parts of routine basic actions and (b) as basic actions themselves. The former count as sub-personal because they can’t be brought to consciousness without being transformed into the latter. Thanks are due to an anonymous referee for inviting me to clarify this point.

  5. Montero is prepared to grant to her opponents that explicit thoughts about ‘highly automatized, everyday skills’ may generally interfere with performance (cf her ‘Restricted Maxim’). From my perspective, she is right here about the automatization, but wrong about the everydayness—thoughts about the components of highly automatized expert skills are just as destructive as thoughts about everyday ones.

  6. See the discussion in Sections 2 and 3 of Papineau 2013. Note especially the data from Mann et al. 2010.

  7. Again, the relevant sense of ‘holding in mind’ is that explored further in ‘The Importance of Focus’ below.

  8. See Bratman (1987) and Holton (2009). Some readers may like to think of the evolutionarily more recent intention-formation mechanism as ‘System 2’, with the older mechanisms of action control as ‘System 1’ (Kahneman 2011). But in general this terminology strikes me as far more crude than useful. Note in particular that in this case the older ‘System 1’ comprises a battery of interrelated mechanisms which no doubt themselves evolved one on top of the other; while the newer ‘System 2’ owes nothing to the kind of ‘formal rules’ that are supposed to govern such processes.

  9. But see Jeannerod 1997 and Clarke 2010 for some relevant material.

  10. These definitions of ‘Choking’ and ‘The Yips’ are intended to be stipulative. Not all writers in this area divide things up in my way, not least because many hold the substantial (and to my mind mistaken) thesis that in sports Choking (in my sense) always derives from The Yips (in my sense).

  11. Sian Beilock, Thomas Carr and their associates argue that Choking in sport (but not necessarily in more intellectual endeavours) is always caused by The Yips (‘explicit self-monitoring’ in their terminology) rather than by loss of focus. They cite a series of studies showing that expert sporting performance is adversely affected by self-monitoring but not by a simultaneous ‘distracting task’, such as listening for variations in a series of tones (Beilock 2007, 2010; Beilock and Carr 2001, 2004; Beilock et al. 2002). Their data are interesting, but scarcely conclusive in showing that Yip-like self-monitoring is the only thing that disrupts sporting performance. For one thing, it is not clear that the subjects in their studies (mainly golf putters) were in competitive rather than practice mode; as my earlier discussion of the ‘importance of focus’ implies, practice mode permits a level of imprecision that does not require focus and so need not be affected by distractions. Moreover, it is no part of my argument that focus requires an active conscious rehearsing of your intended basic action; it may be enough to hold your intention in place that you prevent certain kinds of disrupting thoughts from intruding; and for this it may be helpful to occupy your mind with music, say, or a meaningless mantra, or indeed attention to a sequence of tones.

  12. One anonymous reader of this paper felt that it supported Dreyfus’s habitualism at least to the extent of showing that athletic skill increases with the ability to hand over more and more complex ‘rafts of conditional dispositions’ to unthinking execution. I do not wish to dispute this observation.


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Papineau, D. Choking and The Yips. Phenom Cogn Sci 14, 295–308 (2015).

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  • Sport
  • Choking
  • Yips
  • Intention
  • Focus
  • Basic action
  • Automaticity