CHOKING YOUR INNER CHOKER

by Dr. Roberta A. Isleib

What do the following three golfers have in common?

  • Anna B.'s scores have hovered all season just above ninety, but she's been unable to break through into the eighties. She approaches the 18th hole, only needing bogey to shoot a career-record 89. She reaches the green in regulation, four-putts, and cards a triple.
  • Josie F., a fairly new golfer, has a set of lessons and a number of Sunday afternoon rounds with her husband under her belt. Her teaching pro convinces her it's time to try a Thursday ladies' day tournament. If only I can keep my first shot in the fairway and not embarrass myself in front of the battle-scarred eighteen-holers… she whispers to herself. On the first tee, she yanks three drives out of bounds and dissolves into Jell-O.
  • Greg N. stands six shots ahead of Nick F. in the final round of the Masters tournament. He chunks his approach shot into the pond on the ninth hole and proceeds to fritter away the lead. After the longest afternoon of a lifetime, Nick dons the green jacket.

If you said all three golfers "choked under pressure", you were correct. Psychologists say that choking may occur when your motivation to perform well backfires-and this can happen at many levels of skill.

HOW DOES IT HAPPEN?

Choking takes place when your conscious or thinking mind steps in to try to control skills that you've already learned well enough to perform automatically. With the added pressure of an audience or your hiked-up expectations, you tell yourself to be careful, then revert to the mechanical performance of a novice. In fact, you are better off without this extra oversight from your well-meaning brain!

"When you choke, you introduce qualities of protectiveness or pressing in your performance," says Dr. Joseph Parent, author of the new book Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game. "The combination of the two is the worst-trying too hard and making sure not to commit mistakes. The golfer has ceased to trust that her body can execute the shots she knows."
Greg Norman's collapse at the Masters is probably the most infamous example of choking, but most golfers can remember a personal experience with the phenomenon. Your body feels awkward and clumsy-the harder you try, the worse you do. Parent suggests an exercise you can use to illustrate this process. Begin by signing your name across a piece of paper. No big deal. Your signature is a behavior that is so well-learned, the conscious mind no longer gets involved in controlling it. Now, trace over the signature again, this time being very careful not to make any mistakes or mark outside the lines. Harder, right? You've interrupted the "flow" and your performance suffers.

SO WHAT'S THE CURE?

1. Recognize the symptoms of pressure. Listen to what you're telling yourself as you play. If you "hear" yourself thinking thoughts like "I need to be careful" or "I need to try a little harder", look out! Your thinking mind is moving in. Trust that your body knows how to swing. "I like to use the motto, nothing special, nothing extra, under those conditions," says Dr. Parent.

2. Practice under conditions as similar as possible to those you'll be facing. Sian Beilock and Thomas Carr, researchers at Michigan State University, trained novice golfers to putt in three different environments. The first group practiced putting with no distractions. The second group learned while listening to a tape recorder with instructions to repeat the word "cognition" whenever they heard it on the tape. Group three putted while being videotaped. They were told a professional would later critique their performance. Next, all three groups were tested under low and high stress conditions. Not surprisingly, the third group, acclimated to performing under pressure, out-putted the other golfers in the high-stress condition where money was at stake for both them and a partner.

Put yourself in competitive situations before the match, so the circumstances will feel familiar. A game where you force yourself to start over if you miss a putt is more pressure than simply putting around the practice green. A money match between you and a friend with an audience watching may be even better practice.

3. Try to reduce the extra meaning you may have added to your performance. If you need to sink a putt to top your personal best, remind yourself the putt is familiar-a simple four foot uphill putt. Avoid focusing on the fact that this particular four foot putt means you will break ninety for the first time in your career!

4. Bring up positive images of how you've performed in similar situations. "Human beings seem predisposed to focus on the negative," Dr. Parent laughs. "You've got to squeeze out the pictures of all the times you've blown it and replace those memories with positive images."

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