How To Think Under Pressure

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."


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I thought you were going to recommend that they drink heavily in such situations, relying on a CNS depressant to get rid of those pesky higher cognitive functions.

I always was aware of that effect when playing darts and I tried to find a way to imitate this "unawareness". The conclusion is very nice: Holistic cue words.

I really like your blog. Thanks for sharing your insights!

I never could putt or drive or anything regarding golf. As a result, I haven't played in 20 years thus eliminating the problem. Smooth and balanced were never in my golf vocabulary, but, I did have quite a few other words I used often.

By bigjohn756 (not verified) on 11 Mar 2008 #permalink

Are you telling me that Clinton, and not Obama, would be the likelier one to choke when answering that 3am phone call?

No, no. The intent of the article was obviously to show that Clinton would smoothly answer the call, noting to the caller that it was the middle of the night, while Obama would obviously choke, and say something like "You know, it's the middle of the night." One is obviously much more preznitial; the fate of the world depends on choosing correctly.

Anyway, such is the debate...

Nice article. Basically, how to NOT think under pressure.
Focus on mechanics (whether it be putting, pitching, shooting baskets etc) almost always results in varied tension in the musculature; subtle tightening in grip pressure, increased stiffness in limbs, or exaggerated relaxation etc---all these things interfere with smooth execution. Tiger Woods always says he "putts to the picture" like his dad taught him to, i.e. he visualizes the ball going into the hole---this gives the body a 'holistic' cue I guess, an integrated image that combines speed, line, break etc, and encourages the body to simply start the ball onto that imagined course.

It would be interesting to see a similar study done with musicians. As a singer, I had an accompanist who knew the trick was to play fast enough so that I wouldn't have enough time to think between the notes. While this may have worked with certain pieces, it's not always a practical method to avoid stage fright... (although it may be a reason why performers are likely to speed up the tempo when they are nervous.) Performers have to find a very fine balance between the right amount of awareness versus trusting your brain and muscle memory. It my opinion, Bach might take more conscious concentration than putting, but all the same too much analysis during performance can definitely lead to "choking."

Part of the reason for the downward spiral effect is that new habits that get bad results start to form in very basic parts of one's technique. I find to get through this, one must practice their most basic techniques and think all the way through their actions in real time just like a novice. Once the mind is on automatic pilot, the strongest habits kick in and if those habits are bad ones, the spiral continues. I find in my own practice that this is also this is caused by concentration on past time or future time, making the performer/athlete think behind what he is doing or anticipate what he is doing, causing muscles to move out of sync. As you said with the novice's way of learning, I think it's best to try to remain in the mindset of a novice. Holistic cue words really only work if someone has all the right habits set in to cue, the problem with this is that it makes improvement much more difficult or even impossible over time, and makes one more vulnerable to these downward spirals and eventually burn out from bad habits setting in by random accidents.

...for "put" read "putt".

what a silly mistake! thanks so much for the correction.

Along the lines of the advice above, there is a section on not choking and getting into the 'zone' in Herbert Benson, MD's book :" The Break-Out Principle". To summarize the advice of several medalist Olympic skaters: "Skate stupid!"

Along the lines of the advice above, there is a section on not choking and getting into the 'zone' in Herbert Benson, MD's book :" The Break-Out Principle". To summarize the advice of several medalist Olympic skaters: "Skate stupid!"

the article is more about how to act under pressure than actually how to think under pressure. it would be interesting to see tips about creative think under pressure.

the article is more about how to act under pressure than actually how to think under pressure. it would be interesting to see tips about creative think under pressure.