The Frontal Cortex

The Tiger Woods Effect

Success is intimidating. When we compete against someone who’s supposed to be better than us, we start to get nervous, and then we start to worry, and then we start to make stupid mistakes. That, at least, is the lesson of a new working paper by Jennifer Brown, a professor at the Kellogg school.

Brown demonstrated this psychological flaw by analyzing data from every player in every PGA tournament from 1999 to 2006. The reason she chose golf is that Tiger Woods is an undisputed superstar, the most intimidating competitor in modern sports. (In 2007, Golf Digest noted that Woods finished with 19.62 points in the World Golf Ranking, more than twice as many as his closest rival. This meant that “he had enough points to be both No. 1 and No. 2.”) Brown also notes that “golf is an excellent setting in which to examine tournament theory and superstars in rank-order events, since effort relates relatively directly to scores and performance measures are not confounded by team dynamics.” In other words, every golfer golfs alone.

Despite the individualistic nature of the sport, the presence of Woods in the tournament had a powerful effect. Interestingly, Brown found that playing against Woods resulted in significantly decreased performance. When the superstar entered a tournament, every other golfer took, on average, 0.8 more strokes. This effect was even more pronounced when Woods was playing well. Based on this data, Brown calculated that the superstar effect boosted Woods’ PGA earnings by nearly five million dollars.

Brown argues that this phenomenon is caused when “competitors scale back their effort in events where they believe Woods will surely win.” After all, why waste energy and angst on an impossible contest?

That hypothesis is certainly possible, but I’d argue that the superstar effect has more to do with “paralysis by analysis” than with decreased motivation. I’d bet that playing with Tiger Woods makes golfers extra self-conscious, and that such self-consciousness leads to choking and decreased performance. The problem, then, isn’t that golfers aren’t trying hard enough when playing against Tiger – it’s that they’re trying too hard. I wrote about this mental challenge in the London Observer earlier this year:

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. After golfers have learned how to putt – once they have memorised the necessary movements – analysing the stroke is a waste of time. The 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. Bradley Hatfield, a professor of kinesiology and psychology at the University of Maryland, has monitored the brain wave activity of expert athletes during performance. (Because the subjects have to wear a bulky plastic cap full of electrodes, Hatfield can only study golfers, archers and Olympic rifle shooters.) While the brain waves of beginners show lots of erratic spikes and haphazard rhythms – this is the neural signature of a mind that is humming with conscious thoughts – the minds of expert athletes look strangely serene. When they are performing, they exhibit a rare mental tranquility, as their brain deliberately ignores interruptions from the outside world. This is neurological evidence, Hatfield says, of “the zone”, that trance-like mindset which allows experts to perform at peak levels. (As the corporate motto says, the best athletes don’t think: they just do it.)

Beilock’s data further demonstrate the benefits of relying on the automatic brain when playing a familiar sport. She found that when experienced golfers are forced to think about their putts, they hit significantly worse shots. All those conscious thoughts erase their years of practice. “We bring expert golfers into our lab, we tell them to pay attention to a particular part of their swing, and they just screw up,” Beilock says. “When you are at a high level, your skills become somewhat automated. You don’t need to pay attention to every step in what you’re doing.”

This is what happens when people “choke”. The part of their brain that monitors their behaviour starts to interfere with actions that are normally made without thinking. Performers begin second guessing skills that they have honed through years of practice. The worst part about choking is that it tends to spiral. The failures build upon each other, so a stressful situation is made more stressful.

Comments

  1. #1 Nicholas Bowman
    November 17, 2009

    Is it also possible that when Tiger Woods enters a tournament players not only try harder but take more risks, as they know that they’ll have to get a little lucky to beat the Tiger? In taking more risks, they may end up taking more strokes most of the time, but occasionally they may do better. This is not a question that is easily answered, given the lack of data, but one could ask the players, or try to find a way to quantify their risk-aversion.

  2. #2 Kevin H
    November 17, 2009

    Yup, Bowman has a good theory too. Also how about audience size? The effect might be indirect, in that Tiger brings in more people, which in turn make other players more nervous?

    All possibilities, it would be interesting to see what ones you could dismiss by some careful analysis of the data.

  3. #3 Mike
    November 17, 2009

    Or…it’s possible that Tiger Woods tends to NOT enter the lesser tournaments played on easier courses. I’d love to see the original data to see if that was accounted for. I have seen people choke against Tiger Woods, but I’ve also seen people play their finest against him. The fact is, he _is_ intimidating. He’s possibly the best at putting I’ve ever seen, and that’s half the game.

  4. #4 James
    November 17, 2009

    It seems possible that the scores were just low because Woods competed in the most difficult tournaments. Was this factor taken into account? If not, I’m not sure we can make any inferences from this data.

  5. #5 royniles
    November 17, 2009

    I think the presence of Tiger Woods makes others take less risks rather than more, because the expectation is that Woods’ assessment of risk is based on his skill, and to up the risk factor without compensating for the skill factor would seem to be a losing strategy.

    So the quality of play is actually diminished, regardless of whether Woods’ play lives up to expectations. The less the risk taken, the less the edge one achieves with their skills.

  6. #6 John Farrell
    November 17, 2009

    Its wild how the author and all the commentators just threw theories out without looking at any data to support them. Is this scienceblogs.com or mytheoryisrighterblogs.com?

  7. #7 Colin Curtin
    November 17, 2009

    boosted Woods’ PGA earnings were boosted

    Probably want to get rid of one of those “boosted”s.

  8. #8 Fran Barlow
    November 17, 2009

    I prefer RoyNiles’s reasoning.

    It seems to me that if you thought the chances of staying with someone as good as Woods evidently is were a high risk low return bamble, but staying with lesser players and hoping they might overplay their hand enough to hand you a win by default was a moderate to low risk/high return gamble, you might aim for four rounds of 70 with the hope of fluking a 69 in there once and sneaking second or third, rather than going for four shots that were a pretty good show of rounds of 68 but risked 71.

    This would be especially rational if there were a player who was considered a rough chance of beating Woods on any given day and who would try to stay with Woods in the early rounds — say Ernie Ells for example.

  9. #9 Alan Pinstein
    November 17, 2009

    If you know you aren’t as good as someone, the only real ways to beat him are 1) hope you play your best and he screws up, or 2) take some risks and hope you get lucky.

    I think there is probably a combination of both happening, depending on the player. I think it’s very hard to say that people perform worse because they’re intimidated or because they’re taking risks to outperform their norm. The study should probably have actually *talked* to the golfers that had the biggest performance drop to get an idea behind the change in their behavior.

  10. #10 Zoasterboy
    November 17, 2009

    What I think is that tiger actually controls a powerful force field that allows him to unconsciously influence the movements of objects in his presence. When he wants a ball to go somewhere, there it goes. When he wants his opponent to fail, there they go.

    He’s a master of The Force, simply put. A Jedi.

  11. #11 Gramsci
    November 17, 2009

    Ahem, I have a theory…actually I don’t.
    What I recall after reading Jonah’s thoughts on choking is how often Woods talks about “trusting it” when recounting his preparation for a shot. In the 1999 PGA, for instance, his short putt on the 17th for par was basically a putt to win the tournament. He knew it, his opponents knew it, even Bob Dole knew it. It was a prime occasion to overthink and overtry. If you go back to interviews, he repeatedly stresses how his only thought was “Trust it!” i.e. I don’t need to try I just need to let myself make it.

  12. #12 LabDancer
    November 19, 2009

    First off, I’m interested in whether either Ms Brown or Mr Lehrer are golfers, and particularly whether either has ever played in any sort of officially sanctioned tournament, even a club championship. I’d also extent the same questions to those making prior comments here. I’ve played in just under a hundred, and found that performance anxiety was a challenge in each & every one — and not just for me, but for every other competitor I spoke to about it [and some I didn't, but observed it in their play].

    Second, I, uh,… “second” the point made in a few comments already, that there must be some accounting for the simple facts that Woods, throughout his career, has played both in tougher tournaments than most, if not all others in his, shall we say, “peer” group, and that those tougher tournaments have made up a greater — mostly a much greater — percentage of the tournaments he’s played in, compared to those his “peers” have played in.

    There are even some top drawer star pro golfers that typically don’t even play in some of the tougher tournaments, by design. Mr Lehrer’s article in The Guardian that he’s linked to starts out by referring to Kentucky resident Kenny Perry, who, very similarly to another long-term successful pro golfer from a generation back, Bruce Lietzke, typically has chosen deliberately against playing in the Open Championship [in the U.K.], and sometimes also the U.S. Open — by consensus the two most difficult golf events to win.

    Just look at any Woods season. Typically, he limits himself to 15 to 18 tournaments, in part because with his record there are bound to be several more he can’t or won’t wish to miss, like the Ryder Cup and President’s Cup and the one or two annual regional coronation expeditions he makes [like this year's to Far East, for a couple of events and associated promotional appearances]. Of those tournaments, 4 will be the 4 “majors” — the two Opens, plus the Masters & the US PGA. 3 [and sometimes 4] more will come from the 4 “World” events; so we’re up to 7, and all of them among the toughest. Plus there are 2 ‘mini-majors’ the PGA Tour has, the less-than euphoniously-named Tournament Players’ Championship & the Tour Championship; so we’re at 9, all of them of the utmost difficulty. Then it’s rare Woods misses playing in the two tournaments hosted by Arnold Palmer & Jack Nicklaus, both at very strong courses with very strong fields of competitors; we’re up to 11. Of the typical two annual ‘coronation’ trip events, at least one tends to be with a strong field, and the other isn’t necessarily on a slough-off course [certainly not this year in Aus]; so we’re at 13. The balance of 4 to 8 has tended to come in part from a combination of desire & need to play certain courses in preparation for a major, so usually pretty tough, or, as more recently, to fill out the requirements of this ridiculous season-long “Fedex Cup” competition the PGA Tour invented to build up interest in tournaments Woods would otherwise probably give a pass to — with the result that those too are turning out to draw very tough fields.

    But there are close to twice as many tournaments out there that Woods misses or gives a pass to, and that other group is comprised of decidedly weaker fields on clearly less difficult courses. If one were to go through the exercise of normalizing field scores for all the events Woods plays in — the Woods ‘Group’ if you will — versus all the events he’s both eligible & available to play in [the PGA Tour events, at least] — the Noodles ‘Group’ if you will — I have absolutely no doubt the former would show up as MORE than one stroke tougher than the Noodles Group [a result which supports an entirely different impression than Ms Brown 'found'].

    Finally in this vein: it’s worthwhile bearing in mind that, even on this abbreviated schedule, Woods still routinely laps the world field both in points & prize money. That’s a ‘tell’: the most points & the most prize money tends to go to the most prestigious, competitive tournaments. Moreover, the two provide an internal check — actually, three checks: the first being that points versus limited schedule shows Woods is definitely not cherry-picking his ‘use’ of any ‘intimidation’ effect; the second being money versus limited schedule supports that conclusion, albeit arguably more weakly; & the last of points AND money versus limited schedule scewed so heavily to the tougher events shows that Woods is actually acting AGAINST his ‘interest’, if there were such an effect, in such a way as to minimize if not completely eliminate any such effect.

    Third: this point was alluded to in a previous comment, but from both my own [obviously radically more modest] experience as well as from observation, both on television and a few times in person, I’ve actually never detected any kind of ‘regularized’ negative reaction to playing with Woods; that is, as many seem to rise above their own typical games as fall below them in playing with him or in the same group as him. I do think it’s true, as someone else observed, that the first time ’round having to deal with the size & peculiar behaviors of the crowds drawn to Woods; but all professional golfers learn to deal with crowds & have to make adjustments to them; moreover, all those who’ve reported on their experience say pretty much that: it takes a little getting used to, then it’s fine [If anything, there's a particularly distracting problem that Woods alone, or at least alone to the degree, has to deal with, of sudden noises & movements mid-swing from over-heated fanatics & self-centered photographers, pro as well as amateur].

    Fourth, and last, but I think not least: back to the performance anxiety/self-consciousness factor which started this comment, the one I readily admit to having had to deal with constantly myself. Anyone who watches pro golf on television knows that the choke factor really kicks in for the pros at the end, & of every or just about every tournament, whether or not Woods in a factor, or even present.

    To make the point, the title to Mr Lehrer’s piece in The Observer references the name of the poster-garcon of golf choking, Jean Van de Velde: Woods was present at that tournament, but never a real factor, and no one who watched it would ever suggest Woods’ presence had the least effect on what happened to Van de Velde on the 72nd hole. [Actually, I don't think what happened had anything whatsoever to do with any Van de Veldian muscle at all -- his main error was one of judgment -- lack of any comparable reference in his memory bank, or that of his caddy -- off the tee: what followed thereafter was, in each case, consequential, or serendipitous, or both].

    What may — I think does — distinguish pro golf’s superstars from their run-of-the-mill merely superb elite expert golfing competitor ‘peers’ — is in QUELLING that anxiety, in themselves — not creating in others. Woods in particular, along with his model Nicklaus, have been shown characteristic ruthless bloodlessness in the manner in which they have finished off winning tournaments, each in a number of instances without being in top form, thus having to depend on their ‘peers’ to choke – which, very often, they have done.

    Finally, I’m not about to say there’s no such thing as a “Tiger Woods Effect”; but it’s not what Ms Brown thinks, or what Mr Lehrer offers; and rather is closer to what each and every one of the really dominant champion competitors in the history of golf have had, whether named Vardon or Jones or Nelson or Hogan or Nicklaus or Woods: the greatest ability to deal with their own gag reflex.

  13. #13 J. Eby
    November 19, 2009

    This much seems to be true: most observers believe they see something akin to a “Tiger Woods Effect” in many of the events he enters, especially during fourth-round play when he’s either climbing up the leaderboard to breathe down the necks of the tournament leaders, or so many shots ahead that Sunday just becomes a contest for 2nd place. All of the aforementioned psychological theories probably apply here to some degree, but is it possible that “Tiger-proofing” the courses in some of the big events he enters has backfired somewhat? As we’ve watched Tiger’s career progress, the rest of the field has equalized most of his from-the-tee distance advantage, but not his uncanny ability to play out of trouble.

  14. #14 René Andersson
    November 19, 2009

    How is the average score for the rest of the field in those tournaments that include Mr. Woods but being out of contention? I am aware that this doesn’t happen all that often, but every now and then he will end up tied 40th or some similar position, hence being out of the equation. Do the rest of the players perform better in those tournaments?

  15. #15 Michael Giberson
    November 19, 2009

    Many of the speculative theories raised in these comments are, in fact, addressed in the research. See:
    http://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/~/media/Files/Faculty/Research/ArticlesBookChaptersWorkingPapers/Brown_Quitters_Never_Win.ashx

    For example, as suggested above in the comments, Woods does seek out tournaments at more difficult courses, and Brown does discuss this potential bias and account for it in here analysis.

  16. #16 Dr. Eugene Simmons
    November 19, 2009

    In response to the comment earlier about Tiger finishing 40th or some similar position, what tournament did that happen in and when did it happen on this earth?

  17. #17 Brian J.
    November 25, 2009

    Seems to relate to how certain demographics do on standardized testing. I remember thinking before my SATs about how so many other people were smarter than me, that the answers I gave were weird answers. As I take the GRE, I will try “not to think too much”, but how do you actually do that?

    Also reminds me of how I was a much better basketball player as a kid and how the game seemed to come much easier than it does now. Maybe my memory is biased towards what I see now, but I don’t really remember being that nervous as I am now playing basketball recreationally with strangers as an adult. Perhaps I play it more for social approval and acceptance now than I did as a kid?

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