If you are a golf fan, you no doubt watched or read about Rory McIlroy. If you didn’t, he is the young Irish golfer who was leading this year’s Master’s tournament by four strokes going into the final round. Following rounds of 65, 69, and 70 however, disaster struck, and he shot a final round 80 to finish in 15th place. In common sports terminology many people would say that he “choked” under pressure. What does this mean? Why does it happen? And perhaps of most interest to competitive athletes, how does one avoid choking?
Choking is defined (ironically by a scientist with the last name “Masters”) as “the failure of normally expert skills under pressure.” Scientists have referred to it as a paradoxical phenomenon, as the harder one tries, the worse they do. Athletes and scientists alike have tried for decades to figure this out. One theory seems to rise above the rest in terms of the cause, and ultimately the cure, for choking.
If you read my recent series on performance anxiety, you know about the learning process in sports in which motor skills become automated over time through repetition. As they become automated, they require fewer mental resources. Think back to when you were learning to drive. If you tried to do anything else while you were driving your performance was horrible. But now that you have years and years of experience, you can drive while doing a number of other things (changing the radio, talking to a passenger, etc). Driving now requires only a fraction of the mental energy it once did, because you have an automatic mental program for that task.
The problems begin when you try to control processes that are automatic. If the next time you went out for a drive you focused hard on pressing the accelerator down precisely 1.2 inches, and turned the steering wheel exactly 1.75 times around to make a right-hand turn, your driving would surely suffer. The same thing happens to athletes under pressure. In an effort to give the best performance of their life, they try to control every movement, and by doing so, they short-circuit their effective, automatic processes. The harder they try, the more controlled they become, and the results just get worse and worse. Scientists refer to this process as “explicit monitoring,” because the athlete is monioring their every move, rather than letting it flow naturally. This is likely what happened to Rory McIlroy on that fateful Sunday afternoon in Augusta, Georgia.
As you might imagine, or know for sure if you’re an athlete who has experienced choking, overcoming this obstacle is not quite as simple as “don’t try so hard.” Every athlete’s situation will be somewhat different, both by virtue of what is going on internally as well as the demands of their specific sport. However, a good mental coach can help you get to the bottom of your specific situation and help you develop techniques to perform well under pressure. Drop me a note at DrRich@mindforsports.com if you have any questions or comments about this post.