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Choke: New golf book uncovers the mind games behind buckling under presure

Kiel ChristiansonBy Kiel Christianson,
Senior Writer
Dr. Sian Beilock
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Dr. Sian Beilock's research focuses on performance in pressure situations. (Courtesy of Free Press)

Dr. Sian Beilock, associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, holds doctorates in psychology and kinesiology and has studied for many years why athletes choke under pressure.

In her book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have To ($26, Free Press), Beilock offers an in-depth yet eminently accessible compendium of research on why our most trusted skills seem to evaporate when the heat is on.

Essentially, the vast preponderance of research -- by Beilock and many others -- points to what she calls "paralysis by analysis."

The theory: Under pressure, experts often over-think well practiced procedures. This over-thinking, in turn, inhibits the timing and coordination of the procedure or skill, resulting in a "choke."

For us golfers, Beilock's research is of particular interest for a number of reasons. First, she conducted much of her work on putting greens with both expert golfers (think PGA, LPGA and NCAA caliber) and novices. In fact, Beilock's uncle is a teaching pro in Arizona, so she has spent countless hours observing golfers in their native habitat.

Moreover, one can argue that golf is like no other sport in that the player alone dictates pace of play, so over-thinking is always a threat. Finally, unlike, say, bowling or darts, where the player also controls speed of play, golf presents each player with a completely unique set of circumstances on every shot, which also invites thorough analysis -- or over-analysis.

Several quite fascinating, even startling, results arose from Beilock's research. Notably, people with the largest amount of cognitive resources appear most prone to over-thinking and, thus, to choking. Beilock has found that if a golfer counts backward by threes or sings a song to himself, it occupies a working-memory capacity that might otherwise divert toward over-thinking -- and performance improves.

Additionally, she found that choking on the golf course or football field and choking in non-athletic situations -- for example, during a presentation at work or while taking a math test -- derive from the same underlying mechanisms.

Familiar with the old saw that golf mirrors life? Well, when it comes to choking, the saying appears to be spot-on. Writing down one's fears or concerns before a big presentation or golf match can, in fact, lower the risk of choking in both situations.

The same goes for other means of avoiding choking: Practicing under simulated pressure, for a math test or a golf tournament, lowers the risk of failure. Of course, Earl Woods intuited this when he taught a young Tiger Woods and famously coughed or yelled or jangled keys during his cub's back swing. The benefits of practicing under pressure may also explain why so many pros wager on their practice rounds.

In sum, Beilock's book is not only loaded with data and results, but it offers suggestions about how to apply her empirical work to your performance on and off the golf course. At times, the book gets a bit thick with anecdotes and personal stories, but in the end, every one of these illustrates a strong theory grounded in rock-solid data.

As an avid golfer and cognitive scientist myself -- that's right, it's Dr. Shankapotomous, thank you very much -- I recommend Choke as a must read for any golfer. In fact, it may help more than most golf-specific instructional books on the market.

After all, who cares how pretty your swing looks if you can't repeat it under pressure?

For more information, visit www.sianbeilock.com.

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Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.

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