Why We Choke and How to Prevent It


You’ve practiced the 2-foot putt a thousand times on the putting green and on your carpet. You make it 99.5% of the time. It’s a no-brainer. This time you’ve got a $5 Nassau on the putt and your foursome buddies are all watching intently. Whoops, you pull the putt left. What happened?

Answer: You just suffered a jolt in your mental processing: you have just choked under pressure.

In a recent article Dr Sian Beilock, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago demonstrated how the brain, under certain conditions, would work to sabotage performance, most often in pressure-filled situations that deplete brainpower critical to many everyday activities.

It’s tempting to dismiss such failures as “just nerves.” But to Dr. Beilock, they are preventable results of information logjams in the brain. By studying how the brain works when we are doing our best – and when we choke – she has formulated practical ideas about how to overcome performance lapses at critical moments.

Beilock’s research is the basis of her new book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To, published Sept. 21 by Simon and Schuster, Free Press, 2010.

“Choking is suboptimal performance, not just poor performance. It’s a performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past and occurs when you feel pressure to get everything right,” Sian Beilock

Memorable Golf Choke:

Some of the most spectacular and memorable moments of choking occur in sports when the whole world is watching. Many remember golfer Greg Norman’s choke at the 1996 U.S. Masters. Norman had played brilliantly for the first three days of the tournament, taking a huge lead. But on the final day, his performance took a dive, and he ended the Masters five shots out of first place as Nick Faldo executed flawlessly to take the win.

Choking in such cases happens when the skill circuits executed by the brains of extremely accomplished athletes go awry. Thinking too much about what you are doing, because you are worried about losing the lead (as in Norman’s case) or worrying about failing in general, can lead to “paralysis by analysis.” This paralysis occurs when people try to control every aspect of what they are doing in an attempt to ensure success. Unfortunately, this increased control can backfire, disrupting what was once a fluid, flawless performance.

“My research team and I have found that highly skilled golfers are more likely to hole a simple 3-foot putt when we give them the tools to stop analyzing their shot, to stop thinking,” Beilock said. “Highly practiced putts run better when you don’t try to control every aspect of performance.”

Preventing Choking

Pressure-filled situations can deplete a part of the brain’s processing power known as working memory, which is critical to many everyday activities. Working memory is lodged in the prefrontal cortex and is a sort of mental scratch pad that is temporary storage for information relevant to the task at hand, whether that task is doing a math problem or preparing for a tough three-foot putt.

Beilock’s work has shown the importance of working memory in helping people perform their best, in academics, sports and business. Talented people often have the most working memory, but when worries creep up, the working memory they normally use to succeed becomes overburdened. People lose the brain power necessary to excel. Our task is to limit over-capacity to the working memory.

Six Specific Actions You Can Take Under Pressure

  • My own research has shown that something as simple as humming or singing helps prevent the portions of the brain that might interfere with performance from taking over. Try and think about your backswing when humming, it can’t be done. I often tell golfers to hum when getting over what would usually be thought of as an important putt.
  • Meditation practice can help as it is training to help calm the mind and body.
  • Pre-shot routine – having a habitual pre-shot routine allows you to build habit and reduce your mind’s internal chatter. This is very helpful and reported by many to help when under pressure. Focus your attention on following the routine.
  • Adopting ‘an alert attitude of indifference’. What this means is to minimize the importance of outcome. Make it less significant to you while still being alert to the situation. This was a favorite saying of Moe Norman and clearly showed his recognition that over care in a situation works against high performance.
  • Stay in the present. What this means is pay attention to what you are doing without thinking about the future. You will hear high-level athletes often say ‘don’t get ahead of yourself.” Good advice.

Like all high-performance techniques, the time to practice is prior to the event. Use this winter to integrate some of these techniques into your mental set and gain an advantage by achieving optimal mental-physical-emotional balance.