I’ve always been morbidly fascinated by examples of choking. It doesn’t matter if it’s Jean Van de Velde in the 1999 British Open, or Shaq at the free-throw line, there’s something unbelievably poignant and nightmarish about watching a world-class performer get sabotaged by their own brain. I can’t bear to watch, and yet I can’t look away.
Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has helped illuminate the anatomy of choking. She uses putting on the golf green as her experimental paradigm. When people are first learning how to putt, the activity can seem daunting. There are just so many things to think about. Golfers need to assess the lay of the green, calculate the line of the ball, and get a feel for the grain of the turf. Then they have to monitor their putting motion and make sure that they hit the ball with a smooth, straight stroke. For an inexperienced player, a golf putt can seem unbearably hard, like a life-sized trigonometry problem.
But the mental exertion pays off, at least at first. Beilock has shown that novice putters hit better shots when they consciously reflect on their actions. The more time they spend thinking about the putt, the more likely they are to hit the ball in the hole. By concentrating on their golf game, they can avoid beginner’s mistakes.
A little experience, however, changes everything. After golfers have learned how to putt – once they have memorized the necessary movements – analyzing the stroke is a waste of time. Their brain already knows what to do. It automatically computes the slope of the green, settles on the best putting angle, and decides how hard to hit the ball. In fact, Beilock found that when experienced golfers are forced to think about their putts, they hit significantly worse shots. Beilock believes that this is what happens when people “choke”. The part of their brain that monitors their behavior starts to interfere with decisions that are normally made without thinking. They begin second guessing the skills that they’ve honed through years of diligent practice. The worst part about choking is that it tends to be a downward spiral. The failures build upon each other, so that a stressful situation is made even more stressful.
So what should experienced golfers think about when hitting a putt? A new study offers some practical advice. Rather than think about the mechanical details of their swing, golfers should focus on general aspects of their intended movement, or what psychologists call a “holistic cue word”. For instance, instead of contemplating things like the precise position of the wrist or elbow, they should focus on descriptive adjectives like “smooth” or “balanced”. An experimental trial demonstrated that professional golfers who used these “holistic cues” did far better than golfers who consciously tried to control their stroke. The researchers conclude that expert performers should “adopt more global, higher-level cue words that collectively combine the mechanical process of their technique, which may act as either a schematic cue or a conscious distraction.”