Don’t Crack Under Pressure: The psychology behind the phenomenon of choking

Choking under pressure is a phenomenon that every player has experienced but few are willing to explore their personal episodes of choking and analyse the causes of this adverse and costly reaction to perceived pressure.

Most players would rather erase such experiences from their mind, and hope it never happens again. But recognising your patterns of response in terms of thought and action, and understanding what needs to change can mean the difference between being a choking resistant player or a choking susceptible player.

In this article, I will share the player profiles emerging in recent research on choking susceptibility, that can guide the self-assessment of your player profile to better understand yourself and your typical response under pressure.

Choking Defined

Choking is defined as a critical deterioration in skill execution leading to substandard performance, that is caused by an elevation in anxiety levels under pressure, at a time when a successful outcome is attainable by the athlete.

In contrast, the clutch performance is seen as an increment or superior performance that occurs under pressure circumstances.

Familiar Examples of Choking

Many players associate choking with Norman’s devastating finish in the 1996 Masters after going into the final round with 6-shot lead over Faldo.

In 2011 at the Masters, Rory McIlroy began the final round with a 4-stroke lead. But he fell apart beginning on the 10th tee, eventually finishing with an 80 to drop to 15th place. His drive on No. 10 wound up between two of Augusta Nationals cabins, a part of the course that might never have been shown on TV before. He tripe-bogged that hole, and followed it with a bogey on the 11th and a double on the 12th.

Now let’s take a closer look at what happen’s behind the choking event in terms of common thought patterns and on-course behavioural responses. The published research Dr Gucciardi and I conducted in 2010 examined the individual choking experiences of 30 elite players from Australia and the US. These are the common patterns seen in their responses:

Thoughts and focus:

  • An unyielding focus on the score / scoring (scoring well)
  • Lack of clarity / indecision, and reduced commitment in shot selection
  • Frequent self-criticism
  • Excessive self-focus

The research indicates that an excessive self-focus is linked to a form of “self-talk” that is unproductive, self-berating, and dwells on mistakes. It keeps a players focus inward (lost in thought), leading to exaggeration of emotional experiences, preventing the individual from focusing on the task, the target, and what’s happening around them, which ultimately leads to poor decision making.

Common behavioural responses (actions):

  • Swing/Grip Tension – Tempo change
  • Departure from normal routines
  • Emotional outbursts
  • A change in interactions with playing partners or caddy

Are you a choking resistant player or a choking susceptible player?

The Profile of a Choking-Susceptible Player

The latest research in choking behaviours and cognitions provide insight into the profile of a choking susceptible athlete. The following attributes are related to choking susceptibility:

  • High trait anxiety

This involves the experience of anxiety not just on the golf course, but also in other daily tasks such as, social gatherings or exams.

  • A strong self-focus

A habit of monitoring your thoughts and feelings in most social situations.

  • High self-consciousness

Excessive worry about what other’s think and how they perceive you.

  • Rigidity and inflexibility in your training and game approach

This means you are the type of player who does not cope well with change or adapt easily to unforeseen circumstances. In training, you enjoy repetitive drills in for skill mastery, but dislike practice that forces a new or creative approach.

  • Symptoms of high stress before major competitions

This means that deep down your mind and body perceive pressure situations as a threat and you do not find these moments fun or energising.

The key word here is perceived. Pressure is your own creation and it does not have to be such a scary thing. For some individuals, pressure brings out the best in their game, as it enhances focus and determination. Ask yourself, is there room to re-define what pressure means to me?

The Profile of the Choking-Resistant Player

In contrast, the profile of a choking resistant player is defined by these actions and characteristics:

  • Engagement in optimistic self-talk

Following a bad hole, choking resistant players consistently remind themselves of positive possibilities. Their self-talk directs their focus on playing “one shot at a time.”

  • Visualisation of team support

Interestingly, choking resistant players imagine significant others cheering them on when they walk the course, rather than worrying about how other’s perceive them.

  • A pre-shot routine that regulates arousal

Resistant players perform an action in their pre-shot routine that helps to set their focus or calm their nerves. Ask yourself: Do the actions in your routine serve a purpose?

  • A present focus

Instead of focusing on past mistakes or future failures your mind and body is absorbed in the present shot.

  • Reduced expectations

This involves a healthy perspective and a positive outlook on the importance of your performance in the upcoming tournament.

  • Trusting and instinctual

This involves a strong sense of trust in your abilities as a player (what ever level you may be), allowing you to feel natural on the course, and play instinctively. You don’t have to practice a whole lot more to achieve this state. It can take shape if you focus on simply committing strongly to the shot you have selected – Walk into your shot with conviction and poise and slowly the trust in your game will intensify.

Dr Jay-Lee Nair PhD | Psychologist MAPS
Book an appointment with Dr Jay-Lee at the Singapore Sports Medicine Centre to learn how you become a choking resistant player under pressure.

NB This article first appeared in Laguna National Golf & Country Club magazine.