Golf, Choking and the Unconscious

It's British Open season, which means that it's time to relive all the great golf chokes of recent years. No other course seems to cause golfers to crack under pressure quite like Carnoustie. (The most famous choke being Jean Van de Velde's collapse on the 18th hole in 1999.)

Why do golfers choke? The answer reveals some important elements of skill learning and the unconscious brain. Look, for example, at putting on the golf green. When people are first learning how to play golf, they are given straightforward advice about putting. They are told to take their time, concentrate, and carefully think about what they are doing. They should assess the lay of the green, calculate the line of the ball, and get a feel for the grain of the turf. These beginners then need to start contemplating their putting stroke. A good put depends upon an intricate sequence of movements: square the hips, lock in the shoulders, plant the feet, take a straight backswing and apply the necessary amount of force. All this thinking can be a bit overwhelming. For an inexperienced player, a golf put can seem like trigonometry played on a lawn.

But all this thinking pays off, at least at first. Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has shown that novice putters hit better shots when they consciously reflect on their actions. The more time they spend thinking about the put, the more likely they are to hit the ball in the hole. For these beginning golfers, putting is like a puzzle. It's important for them to think about the put so they can avoid making obvious mistakes.

However, experience changes everything. After golfers have learned how to put - they have memorized the necessary movements - spending more time analyzing the put is a waste of time. Their unconscious brain already knows what to do. It automatically computes the necessary variables, and settles on the best putting angle. In fact, Beilock found that when experienced golfers think about their puts they actually hit worse shots. "We bring expert golfers into our lab, and 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."

Beilock believes that "choking" - say, for example, a professional golfer missing a six-inch put on the 18th hole - happens when experts begin to consciously scrutinize their unconscious movements. This extra analysis disrupts their reliable autopilot. Cracking under pressure is really just a symptom of thinking too much.

Obviously, golfers aren't the only athletes who choke. Shooting free throws in the fourth quarter is another activity that tends to make people over-analyze their actions. Field goals kickers are also vulnerable. My guess is that baseball players are less prone to choking simply because it's really impossible to consciously think about a baseball swing: it just happens too fast.

Update: The final, decisive rounds of yesterday's British Open were pretty perfect examples of thinking too much.


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You said: My guess is that baseball players are less prone to choking simply because it's really impossible to consciously think about a baseball swing: it just happens too fast.

I don't think so. Baseball is one sport that keeps stats on everythng, and though I don't have access to a baseball encyclopedia, I think that some players are just better at hitting in late inning men-on-base situations.

I see it on my kid's baseball and softball teams, and I am sure it happens in the big leagues too.

But mightn't that be that some batters are just better at it, not that other batters fail only in those moments? You'd have to compare regular at-bats with crucial ones. Our bias - remembering the times they failed more than the times they succeed - make our - or my - intuitions suspect.

Interesting piece. A few years ago I read a summary of a similar study on tennis players. Again, the gist was that for experienced players overthinking is what causes performance collapse. I'd be curious as to how these studies-- which center on activities that are primarily motor-coordinative-- would investigate activities that are inherently cognitive-- chess, for example. The conscious mind that gets in the way of athletic movements: would it also get in the way of more cerebral computations?

By Jeff the Poustman (not verified) on 20 Jul 2007 #permalink

Great post. Which is exactly why we help golfers and traders -among other experienced top performers who need to work well under intense pressure- to understand the physiology of stress and self-regulate emotions.