The role of others' presence in sport performance under pressure

Editor: Ruud den Hartigh
Editorial Assistant:
Sofia Calderon

This article has also been translated into French.

The presence of other people is inevitable in sport and dealing with it is crucial for high-level performance. This article presents the potential explanation of social inhibition or choking under pressure in competitive contexts due to the presence of others and suggests ways to help athletes to prevent them.

Whether you are a weekend sportsperson or an elite athlete, you probably felt the difference between doing your sport in front of an audience and doing it alone. For example, the Olympic Games in Tokyo were held without spectators due to the COVID-19 pandemic, whereas the Olympics usually attract a high number of spectators (e.g., more than 6 million tickets sold for Rio 2016). This absence of the public at major sporting events, may affect athletes in different ways.  For some, like Shane Wiskus of the U.S. men's gymnastics team, it brought a sense of comfort and familiarity, making the competition feel like "another day at the gym." However, not all athletes shared this sentiment. Yung Wei Yang, a Taiwanese judoka, expressed discomfort with this quiet environment, noting that athletes are accustomed to the energizing buzz of noisy stands. Similarly, Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic mentioned that he thrives on the energy of the crowd, whether positive or negative, indicating that the lack of spectators can diminish his competitive experience. Thus, the presence of an audience can have beneficial and detrimental effects on performance under pressure, which we will discuss in this article. We will begin by describing the impact that the presence of others may have on performance under pressure and delve into the mechanisms that can explain these effects. Additionally, we will provide guidance on how to help athletes avoid the negative effects of the presence of others, particularly under pressure conditions.

The role of the presence of others 

Whether they are teammates, opponents, spectators, coaches, or staff: all athletes must deal with the presence of others. The effects of this presence have been documented in the scientific literature since the late 19th century [1]. Over the years, numerous theories have been proposed to better understand when and how such presence can affect performance, either positively (an effect called social facilitation) or negatively (an effect called social inhibition). On the one hand, this line of research showed that the presence of an audience tends to reduce performance on tasks where accuracy and coordination are dominant [2, 3]. For example, put yourself in the shoes of a top-level performer in biathlon – a sport discipline that combines skiing and shooting – who is arriving at the firing place. The target is 50 meters away and measures only 4.5 cm for prone shots and 11.5 cm for shooting in the standing position. You know that accuracy is crucial for success, as missing a target adds a penalty lap of 150m to the athlete's round. In this situation where an audience is present, the performance of male biathletes can drop significantly by resulting in longer shooting times and less accurate shots than in the absence of an audience [4].

Image 1. A biathlete at the firing place during target shooting

On the other hand, performance on tasks dominantly involving physical abilities (e.g., strength, speed, endurance), tends to improve in the presence of co-actors, who are people doing the same task as the athlete [2, 3]. Now imagine that you are doing a plank test, where the aim is to hold the position for as long as possible. You are doing this test with five or six other people in your field of view, who do the same task at the same time as you (in accordance with the competitive nature of many sports). In this situation, the performance of individuals is improved, that is, they hold a correct position for longer in the presence of others than when doing the test alone [5].

Image 2. The plank test Other characteristics associated with the presence of others also need to be considered, regardless of the nature of the task. The number of people present, their gender, their status, and the way they are perceived contribute to the impact of ‘the presence of others’ on performance [6, 7, 8]. Let's take an example from a sports context to illustrate these parameters. Imagine you are in a competition in the presence of an athlete in the audience (e.g., your training partner) who has a lower status than you (e.g., competing in a lower category). You know this person well and they support you every time you compete. Now imagine that you are in the same competition, but this time in the presence of a group of athletes you don't know in the audience. These strangers have a higher status than you (e.g., athletes competing in higher categories) and display a closed, even threatening attitude. Your performance is likely to be less fluid, jerkier, and therefore less efficient in the presence of the group of strangers than in the presence of your friendly training partner. This example illustrates the many characteristics of the presence of others that can interact and cause performance to degrade or improve. But the effects may vary from person to person, depending for example on gender, age, task difficulty, and other individual characteristics.

These differences between the two situations illustrated above can be explained by the fact that you wanted to do certain movements "too well" and/or that you were distracted by a group of strangers. In the next section, we will further detail the two most common explanations for how the presence of others, or pressure more generally, may negatively affect performance, namely (a) by leading people to focus on their movement execution, and (b) by leading people to be distracted. These two complementary explanations can also explain how athletes can ‘choke under pressure’. 

Unraveling the Puzzle of Performance: Examining the Mechanisms Behind Choking and Social Inhibition Effects

Choking under pressure is defined as an 'acute and considerable decrease in skill execution and performance when self-expected standards are normally achievable, which is the result of increased anxiety under perceived pressure' [9]. Choking under pressure is a widespread phenomenon that can be experienced by every athlete. Of course, not everyone is equally sensitive to this phenomenon, the occurrence of which may depend on the performance level of the participants (e.g., expert or novice), their psychological traits (e.g., perfectionism), irrational beliefs (e.g., devaluing and unchangeable thoughts), or their age and gender.

Several explanations have been proposed to understand the role of the presence of others or of pressure more generally on performance. The first proposes that this situation leads to a shift of attention to oneself and to task execution. As such, the habitual action routines are decomposed into disconnected segments and clumsy step-by-step procedures, preventing fluid and adaptive on-line control. In other words, the effect of this shift in attention is to break the automaticity of movements as athletes' anxiety increases under pressure, leading to a reduction in performance [10]. Similarly, the presence of others may increase “self-consciousness”, which refers to an increased focus on oneself (e.g., “I’m attentive to my inner feelings”) [11].

Image 3. Unraveling the Puzzle of PerformanceThe second main explanation suggests that anxiety occurs at the same time as task performance, which has a distractive effect as this leads to inefficient processing of task-relevant cues, increasing in turn susceptibility to choking [9]. In this context, the presence of others may also have a distractive effect by generating a conflict between attention to the surrounding persons and attention to the task [12]. 

Now that we have a better understanding of the mechanisms that explain the effects of pressure and the presence of others on performance, it is the time to detail how pre-performance routine can be used to avoid or diminish the detrimental effects of the presence of others on sport performance under pressure.

Using Pre-Performance Routines to prevent Choking Under Pressure and to navigate Social Inhibition

There are several methods to prevent choking under pressure and social inhibition. In this section, we will present some of them, with a special focus on the pre-performance routine, a concrete tool that can be used in training and competition to minimize the effects of pressure induced by the presence of others.

Some interventions aim to achieve ‘acclimatization’ by training under conditions that trigger (i) emotional responses that mimic the one that are experienced while choking (e.g., inducing a state of anxiety by using performance-oriented instructions, monetary rewards, and the presence of an audience), (ii) high level of self-consciousness (e.g., practicing in front of a video camera or paying attention to a specific body part), or (iii) distraction conditions with shared attentional resources (e.g., performing a secondary task simultaneously with the main task, a situation called ‘dual-tasking’). However, it seems that only ‘acclimatization’ based on self-consciousness and anxiety training could produce a positive effect on performance under pressure, while distraction training does not help to increase performance [13].

In contrast to distraction training, pre-performance routines are among the most effective interventions for optimizing attention and managing the distractions (internal or external) associated with the presence of others and pressure in general [13]. Pre-performance routines are defined as ‘a sequence of task-relevant thoughts and actions which an athlete engages in systematically prior to his or her performance of a specific sports skill’ [14, p. 177]. Routines can be used in training and competition and should be personalized, adapted to the situation, and constructed and integrated by the athlete.

But why would those routines could ultimately help athletes to prevent choking under pressure? Because performance routines should allow the athlete to know “what” and “when” to reflect in order to master the sport environment. Specifically, through the enactment of performance routines, emotional and cognitive-oriented processes do not compete with the performance (as in the above-mentioned dual-task training), but rather are embedded in the optimal execution of an action (e.g., “seeing myself doing this [penalty]”, “I decide to [focus my attention on the open goal space] instead of [the goalkeeper's feet]”, “feeling myself as [I am about to kick the goal perfectly]”; [15]. In others, pre-performance routines are especially helpful for leading athletes to experience optimal activation states during high-pressure sport performance.

If you want to create your own pre-performance routines, we recommend that you build it around the following five steps to make it effective [16].

Image 4. The five steps to effective pre-performance routines

The creation of a routine begins with a prior action-oriented reflection (what do you want to achieve?). More specifically, since you want to improve your ability to experience optimal states during high-pressure sports performance, it is first necessary to identify your needs (what does the routine need to bring you?) associated with the subsequent use of this routine (e.g., for which task or movement, under which circumstances, ...).

Then, create a mental image of success and the feeling of performing the action to the best of your ability. For example, when preparing for a soccer penalty kick, you can visualize the ball striking the exact spot you are aiming for, and feel your sense of accomplishment and pride. This step might require you to train you mental imagery ability beforehand. Indeed, the ability to form and control the content and dynamics of a mental image is complex, as it combines sensory registers (visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, and also kinesthetic images) and the access to different types of visualization (e.g., first-person vs. third-person visualizations). A mental imagery training should thus allow you to increase the accuracy, vividness and controllability of your mental image to increase its effectiveness.

Depending on your needs, the use of breathing, relaxation, or activation techniques can help you to achieve the desired state of mind and body (e.g., performing with a calm mind and relaxed body or performing with a specific muscle group optimally activated). Alternatively, the use of meditation can also help you to accept your state of mind and body without trying to change it, so that you can focus on the relevant elements. This step might also require you to familiarize first to breathing, meditation or relaxation techniques.

The fourth stage involves focusing on a relevant external signal or thought. For example, you can focus on the open goal space and identify the referee's whistle as the relevant trigger to initiate your action. Carrying out an attention assessment (e.g., using portable eye-tracking to assess what and where you look before undertaking the action) will enable you to better understand how you process information depending on the situation and context. You can also associate a ‘trigger word’ (i.e., a word or group of words to activate the desired state, for example “opening” or “space” to focus on the open goal space) to optimize the concentration stage.

Finally, when you have time, you can evaluate the quality of the action performed and the result, as well as the implementation of the previous strategies. For example, again in the context of a soccer penalty kick, did following your routine help you achieve the desired state? Were you able to place the ball where you wanted it, with the right amount of power? This will give you feedback on the usefulness of your routine and allow you to revise according to your needs.


The presence of others can have beneficial or detrimental effects on performance under pressure, depending on the situation and the characteristics of both the athlete and the others present. These differences can be explained by multiple mechanisms, the two most important of which are self-focus and distraction. The detrimental effects of these processes can be reduced by the creation of pre-performance routines that can lead athletes to cope optimally with high-pressure sport performance and in the presence of others. 


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