Many of you may have watched or heard about Jordan Spieth’s collapse at the Masters golf tournament last year. Spieth was on target to win with a 5 shot lead with 9 holes to play. This meant all he had to do was play the same golf he’d played for the last three days and stay consistent on the way back in. Nothing special. He even could have made a few bogies and been fine. What eventually happened was an illustration of how important the mental aspect of sport is and how crucial a focused mind is, particularly in sports like golf. Spieth hit a seven on a par three which, even at a hard course like Augusta, was pretty extraordinary. Extraordinarily bad for a player of his quality.
So what happens to the human brain under pressure and why do people have a tendency to fail when it matters most?
Performance failure under pressure, or choking as its often called, can happen in any situation both on the sports field and off it. It could be that kick to win the match in the dying seconds of a rugby game or a three foot putt to win the Masters. Likewise it can happen in other parts of life, that important driving test, the crucial job interview or that vital sales pitch. Whatever it is, the situation obviously involves pressure because the outcome is highly valued and usually the cost of failure is significant.
So how come we have a brain so developed but yet has a tendency to let us down when it matters most? Like anything to do with the human brain there is no easy answer, but psychology researchers have developed several theories that help make sense of it all. As Sian Beilock, one of the leading researchers on choking under pressure puts it: We choke because we worry. Worrying about the outcome is thought to act as a distraction so that our skill execution and decision making under pressure is affected. This worry, might be accompanied by significant physiological symptoms of anxiety (think sweaty palms, racing heart, etc). All these take the athlete away from the moment they are in, and often their attention might be directed into controlling that anxiety or worry – rather than executing the particular skill or making the right decision! When this is happening, the ability to make a correct decision is likely to be affected.
The other side of it, which stems from excess worry, is the tendency for us to focus too much on what we are doing – especially when the skill is already a well-learned skill. As we learn a skill, it becomes automatic i.e. we do it without thinking about it while we do it: Have a think about how you tie your shoelaces, drive a car or even how you walk. This type of memory is called procedural memory, its implicit, which means we don’t have to monitor it at all, we just do it.
Because the execution of a skill is so important under high amounts of perceived pressure, the worry of failure may try force us to try and control and monitor our skill execution. We go back to explicitly monitoring how we do things and direct our focus toward executing a skill which normally we’d do on auto pilot. To put it simply it is, as they say: “paralysis by analysis.” The explicit monitoring happens in the pre-frontal cortex and this monitoring and conscious processing of a skill that is firmly locked in our procedural memory creates havoc with the execution.
Think about tying your shoelaces again, and now imagine yourself in a shoelace tying competition and having to do it with hundreds of people watching your technique. You could bet that some would slip up, freeze or take a lot longer than normal in that situation. Suddenly you start to think about how your fingers are moving, how big a loop to make and where you need to thread each bow.
The short golf putt is always a good example of a skill that golfers should be able to do without thinking. Ernie Els may have had too much self-focus thoughts as he messed up several incredibly short putts on the first hole at Augusta. This scenario also offers a paradox for the “process focus” talk we hear a lot these days. Focusing on the process is definitely important, but TOO much focus on the process, i.e. if we are over focusing on our technique of executing a relatively simple skill that we could normally do when drunk or half asleep, then we are in for trouble. As the late Yogi Berra, a baseball player famous for his bizarre and often amusing “yogi-isms” puts it: “ How can you think and hit at the same time?” Maybe he was on to something if what he meant was that we can’t think about hitting and hit at the same time?
So although this is by no means the whole story in regard to choking under pressure, what we can learn from this is that when we worry we have a tendency to want to exert even more control over our performance and this will cause problems when performing something already locked into our procedural memory.
So if you’re a basketball player on the free-throw line, a golfer lining up that crucial putt or even if you’re just someone who’s entered into an annual shoelace tying competition….what does this mean for you? One technique could be to actually distract the mind and the pre-frontal cortex, this might be singing a song in your head, reciting a poem or doing something that occupies your conscious thoughts. Another is to test yourself under stress. Exposing yourself to a pressure situation might decrease your anxiety reaction to it in the future, but most importantly, it’ll give you the chance to reflect on it, and learn about yourself. In saying this, everyone is different, which is why working with a qualified practitioner at FlowSport can help people overcome these embarrassing failures over time!
And lastly, for the coach, parent or support team…. advice such as “focus on your technique” and “Stay process-orientated” although well intentioned might not be the most beneficial at crucial times. I remember coaching kids rugby and during a potential match-winning conversion attempt, hearing parents on the sideline telling kids to “slow down and think about it!” Again, this is well-intentioned, but over thinking it can actually create even more problems!
The best advice might be to emphasise trust, they need to trust their ability to execute the skill and let the execution take care of itself.