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.