I’ve got an article in the Observer Sports Monthly on athletes and choking, which is adapted from my book:
We call such failures “choking”, if only because a person frayed by pressure might as well not have oxygen. What makes choking so morbidly fascinating is that the performers are incapacitated by their own thoughts. Perry, for example, was so worried about not making a mistake on the 17th that he played a disastrous chip. His mind sabotaged itself.
Scientists have begun to uncover the causes of choking, diagnosing the particular mental differences that allow some people to succeed while others wither in the spotlight. Although it might seem like an amorphous category of failure, their work has revealed that choking is triggered by a specific mental mistake: thinking too much.
The sequence of events typically goes like this: when people get nervous about performing, they become self-conscious. They start to fixate on themselves, trying to make sure that they don’t make any mistakes. This can be lethal for a performer. The bowler concentrates too much on his action and loses control of the ball. The footballer misses the penalty by a mile. In each instance, the natural fluidity of performance is lost; the grace of talent disappears.
Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has helped illuminate the anatomy of choking. She uses golf as her experimental paradigm. When people are learning how to putt, it 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 novices hit better putts when they consciously reflect on their actions. The more time they spend thinking about the putt, the more likely they are to hole the ball. By concentrating on their game, by paying attention to the mechanics of their stroke, they can avoid beginner’s mistakes.
A little experience, however, changes everything.
And here’s David Foster Wallace, writing about the utter lack of self-consciousness in elite athletes, and why that allows them to be successful competitors (but leads to terrible memoirs):
All right, so the obvious point: Great athletes usually turn out to be stunningly inarticulate about just those qualities and experiences that constitute their fascination…It’s not an accident that great athletes are often called “naturals,” because they can, in performance, be totally present: they can proceed on instinct and and muscle-memory and autonomic will such that agent and action are one. Great athletes can do this even – and for the truly great ones like Borg and Bird and Nicklaus and Jordan and Austin, especially – under wilting pressure and scrutiny. They can withstand forces of distraction that would break a mind prone to self-conscious fear in two.
The real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself. The real, many veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all.
I really wish DFW were still here.