Choking under pressure is very common in people, especially in athletes who miss their goal, whether it is a penalty shootout in football, three-point shot in basketball, or 18th hole in golf.

The national football team of England, for instance, lost six of 10 major events via a penalty shootout and, on two occasions, to arch rival Germany before the 2014 Fifa World Cup.

Pressure situations can play tricks on the mind. In the case of the English football team, they had to seek psychiatric assistance to calm down players before a pressure situation.

A recent study from Johns Hopkins University reveals that, in pressure situations, performance normally depends on two key factors: loss or gain incentive framing in the mind and an individual's aversion to loss.

Vikram Chib, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says that he can measure a person's aversion to loss and also frame a particular task in such a way that prevents people from choking under pressure.

The study involved 26 participants between the age of 20 and 30 years. The researchers conducted two separate experiments; one involving coin toss and the other a challenging video game. The participants received cash incentives to complete a challenge.

The study found that the players' performance was affected by their aversion to loss or failure, which increases as the stakes also grow higher. They end up feeling vulnerable.

"When compared to their performance on trials with no monetary value, those with high loss aversion who were offered gains of $25 to $75 also showed improved performance, but when offered a $100 award, they choked," reported the researchers.

Players with lower loss aversion showed improved performance with the increase in prospective gains or losses only to a certain point. However, they also choked over the possibility of losing $100.

The researchers conducted MRI scans on the players while they were performing a task. The scan mainly examined the ventral striatum, which is a small brain area that processes reward and controls movement.

The study found that players who were more averse to loss had comparatively less striatal activity. These players' performance was worst when they played for high stakes. Players with less aversion to loss had less striatal activity in their brain and their performance also reduced when they tried to avoid bigger potential losses.

Chib hopes the study will help coaches maximize players' performance with the help of better psychological conditioning.

The study was profiled in the Journal of Neuroscience.

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