Feeling the Heat - Choking in golf and how to beat it
There are certain moments when I think back over my golfing life which stand out and bring a smile to my face. Seve Ballesteros willing that putt into the hole on the 18th at St Andrews to win the Open in 1984; Sam Torrance’s arms flayed in the air in that bright red sweater bringing home the Ryder Cup at the Belfry; Jack Nicklaus raising his putter and chasing the ball into the hole on the 16th at The Masters as he was about to become the Masters Champion for the sixth time. They were all magical moments that just make you feel good thinking about them. Yet, if someone were to ask me what was one of the most POWERFUL golfing memories of the last 20 years, it would be the horror of watching Greg Norman crumble at the relentless hands of Nick Faldo in the US Masters.
As he took on the expression of a dead man walking those Augusta fairways, the lifetime of grooving a swing evaporated from his being in the space of 9 holes. We all remember Faldo putting his arms around Norman at the end, almost too embarrassed to celebrate his own personal display of mastery. If you were watching golf at that time, I am sure you, too, remember it well.
Why is that memory, unfortunately, so vivid for so many of us? The memory of a truly great golfer suffering the game of golf’s most heartless offering, that of ‘choking’.
I personally hate the word but as a point of universal reference it is a word we all understand and, to a greater or lesser extent, we will have experienced it in our own life. Almost as if the connection between mind and body gets severed and the lines of communication so finely tuned fall silent. The state of mind we call choking is the same whether you are trying to get hold of a green jacket or you are trying to break a hundred for the first time or close in on the club championship you should have won the year before.
It is a state of mind that stops you fulfilling your true potential and it could be said it is the very reason for many careers being cut short. To his great credit, Greg Norman moved on and dealt with the disaster admirably and had continued success in his illustrious career. Others have not been quite so fortunate. Have you ever heard of Ed Sneed? Thought not! Yet, Ed Sneed, by any measure of probability, should have been a Masters champion but he somehow managed to throw away his opportunity of a lifetime. In the 1979 Masters, he held a five shot lead going into the final round and had a three shot lead with three holes to play but a bogey, bogey, bogey finish consigned him to history’s list of unfortunate choking victims.
Through his PGA Tour career, he managed five victories but he never again seriously challenged for a major title after his Masters collapse.
It seems very possible that those crucial moments on the final nine holes had too great an adverse affect on his mind for the rest of his tournament career. Apparently, Doug Sanders who had a three-foot putt to win the Open in 1970 was asked if that putt on the final green at St Andrews still bothered him: ‘Not anymore,’ he said. ‘These days I can go at least an hour without thinking about it!’
What have your experiences of choking been?
Have you ever had a golden opportunity that you blew? You only had to play the last four holes in a couple over par to be the champion golfer at the club but somehow you contrived to drop five shots in four holes. You only had to double bogey the last hole to break a hundred for the first time but you shake your head now and think how could I possibly have taken eight up such an easy hole?
Maybe it wasn’t on the golf course. Maybe you had a speech to give to seal a crucial deal, maybe it was an exam you absolutely had to pass and you did the work, the revision was in the bag but you blew it as you got into the exam room and the curtain came down on the knowledge that you had stored in your brain.
Choking is an almost universal human experience in the context of our lives, some get through it, some recover and, yet, for others, life may never quite be the same. The way our brain works we tend to protect ourselves from situations from which we might feel pain so it is entirely possible we avoid the situation we most need to confront because of one incident of choking buried in our past. The fluffed speech early on can lead to a lifetimes terror of standing up in public in front of an audience.
HOW IS IT THAT HUMAN BEINGS ‘CHOKE’?
Where is the logic in the fact something we know we can do just doesn’t appear when we need it the most? What do we do to get so much in our own way? What is actually going on in our brain when we succumb to these horrors?
It seems that, in a nutshell, when we choke, parts of our brain are just not communicating with others in ways which would normally occur. When we feel we are in high pressure situations, there is usually a high degree of tension but, most importantly, the SKILL or LEARNING that we want to use is stored in our implicit memory or unconscious mind. That left to its own devices can carry out the task at hand beautifully, yet, when we choke another part of our brain, our pre-frontal cortex, the ‘thinking’ part of our brain is hyper active. It is doing too much and in effect drowns out the ability stored in the implicit/unconscious mind. We literally ‘think too much’.
The problem, though, for most of us in pressure situations, when things are not going to plan, is that our default response is to get more careful and think more! Can you see the loop of insanity? The more we think, the worse it gets, the worse it gets, the more we think until we can freeze in the way that Greg Norman did all those years ago. Looking back over the wreckage of that ’96 Masters, psychologists have timed his routines on each shot all through those opening rounds, and found that Norman’s pre-shot routine varied barely more than a couple of seconds, and yet, on that fateful Sunday, the variation was was anything up to 45 seconds! Just when he needed to let his skills override his brain, Norman was thinking instead of doing.
We have all succumbed to this at some point or another, because of that natural default that wants to try to CONTROL the situation.
In a recent study by psychologists Mike Anderson and Kristin Flegal asked highly skilled and beginning golfers to hole short putts on a slightly undulating green. The golfers then spent several minutes DESCRIBING the putts they had just taken or they were instructed to work on an UNRELATED task.
Afterwards the golfers were asked to hole the putts again. After spending time describing their past putts, the skilled golfers needed TWICE as many attempts to hole their putts than the group of skilled players who had NOT put their performances into words. Beginner golfers were NOT affected by describing putts.
The good news is that science is now on our side and there have been numerous research papers written on the phenomenon of ‘the choke’. Most notably Sian Beilock from the University of Chicago has spent the greater part of her academic life studying choking and what is clear from the research is, yes, it’s a problem, but a problem which can be overcome IF we know how best to inoculate ourselves against the choke and have a specific game plan in place to deal with these ‘white heat’ moments. I have been very fortunate over the years to be able to share with and discuss these moments with some of the game’s great players and if it is of any comfort to the rest of us, I can tell you they feel it too!
It is a huge myth to think the great players don’t feel nervous or they don’t have to fight those strange and debilitating thoughts knocking on the door of their consciousness, they do. But they have found ways of dealing with the stress and the pressure. Ways in which you personally can learn and bring to bear on your own game so that when YOUR opportunity comes along, be that to win a monthly medal or club championship, you KNOW you have a strategy which will give you the best chance of dealing with pressure. There is no guarantee, of course, but what is for certain is if you have no way of dealing with pressure situations both on and OFF the course, then they WILL find you out and you will be left to pick up the pieces.
So what are the best ways to beat choking? Here are what I call my Top 5 ‘Choke Busters’.
HAVE A ROCK-SOLID ROUTINE
Golfers think they have a routine but in most cases that is just a physical routine. Above anything else you need a mental routine. What are you going to have your ATTENTION on for the critical moments from when you draw the club out of the bag to the point where the ball is released from the clubhead? If you don’t PLAN to have your attention focused on something SPECIFIC for the task at hand, your mind WILL wander. If you don’t give the mind a focus, it will focus on anything. [Colin Cromack has done some great research on this have a look at www.targetorientatedgolf. com]
Doing something seemingly unrelated to the task of swinging a golf club inside your head can paradoxically really help in pressure situations. Singing a song, humming a tune have all been utilised in the past. According to Sian Beilock in her great book ‘Choke’, Jack Nicklaus was rumoured to focus on his little toe during the actual swing part of his routine! This all helps to occupy the pre-frontal cortex from regulating too closely movements that should be running automatically from the unconscious mind.
As we have discussed before in a previous article, it is vital you put yourself under some form of pressure when you practice. Having a little bit of pressure in practice can help you to deal with a lot of pressure on the course. Golf is probably the worst of all sports for practicing in a totally non pressured situation (i.e. hitting balls on the range) and then playing in a much tougher environment where every single time you touch the ball it counts (out on the course).
REFRAME THE FEELING
Jack Nicklaus again can help us here when he said, ‘Give me THAT feeling on the back nine of a major, that is what I do all the practice for.’ He didn’t say give me that feeling of nervousness, he said ‘that feeling’. In Nicklaus’s mind, he attached the feelings of sweaty palms and a racing heart as a good thing. These sensations can be present on both good and bad experiences but the key is to how YOU interpret them, how you frame them in your own mind. If you are scared of the feeling, it will grow stronger; if you welcome, it you can look to control it. Whatever you RESIST will PERSIST!
TAKE LESS TIME NOT MORE
As a very broad generalisation, when most golfers get older, the better they play, the worse they putt. Especially on Tour, I have seen this particular phenomena over and over again. What I see is players on the green looking from all angles, studying this, studying that and literally jamming their brain with too much information.
Trying to over control the situation and think the ball into the hole. What do kids do? They look at a putt, take in the information they need and then JUST DO IT. If you want to study what I think is a great putting routine, have a look at Aaron Baddeley, the Australian PGA Tour player has what I call a ‘minimalist routine’. He just does what he needs to do, not more, not less, just enough and he is consistently ranked as one of the world’s best putters.
So if you have choked recently in any area of your life give yourself a break by recognising that virtually ALL of the game’s great players have succumbed at one point or another but the truly great players have LEARNT from the experience and put strategies in place which have allowed them to come through when they were confronted with the situation again.
Have a look at the options listed above and think which might be the most relevant to you and your own tendencies and when ‘those feelings’ come again, be more sure in the knowledge that this time you have a PLAN to deal with the pressure that golf can create for us all.