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Why we choke (and Tiger doesn't)

July 25, 2009

The simple answer: We think too much.

Jonah Lehrer in the Sunday edition of the Guardian examines the cause of, and remedy for choking, by talking to scientists who have studied the phenomenon. The conclusion is that when too much thought is injected into a grooved behavior -- putting, for instance -- the chain slips from the gear and the club takes on a mind of its own.

Among Lehrer's sources are Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. "She found that when experienced golfers are forced to think about their putts, they hit significantly worse shots," Lehrer writes. "All those conscious thoughts erase their years of practice. 'We bring expert golfers into our lab, 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.'"

Holistic cue words that eliminate anxiety are the panacea, the story concludes. In Tiger Woods' case, he fixates "on banalities and cliches," Rohrer writes. "'Mental toughness, I think you could put it into words,' Tiger says. 'It's stuff like you never give up. You never give in to anything. You never accept anything but the best from yourself.' These vapid phrases have saved Tiger countless times from coming undone on the 18th hole."

It's an interesting read, shedding scientific light on golf played under pressure. Our own conclusion: Identifying the cause no doubt was substantially easier than applying the solution will prove to be. Advantage choking.

-- John Strege