Choking Not What We Thought
I have, in the past, referred to a specific chapter in my misspent youth on the golf course, the year in which I finished the front nine 8 up, and lost the match 1 down on the 18th. This is the perfect time to resurrect it, as it has served as the core example of “choking” for me since I was a young teenager. The subject has interested me ever since, and now Harvard is talking about it.
Of course, choking happens wherever there is competition or the “need to succeed.” It happens, as one article puts it, to opera singers, actors, hedge-fund managers and chess grandmasters. It doesn’t matter what the tools of your trade are, you’re open to it.
As it turns out, choking doesn’t come down to a matter of talent. We’ve seen many potentially great athletes with fourth quarter break-downitis. We’ve seen a lot of four-putts on final holes, drives in the drink just when things looked rosiest, including a Frenchman trying to muscle his confidence into a few good shots at a British Open.
As one might expect, the problem of over-thinking is thought to be at the heart of the problem. We take motions with which we are totally familiar and comfortable, and just at the crucial moment, pretend as if we are not. We grow so self-conscious, due to the situation, its possible rewards and horrible punishments, that we dissect our natural swings, honed to one point or other over decades, and pretend like we’re in our first golf lesson. This time, however, we become the instructors. How can one be forty, fifty, or more years of age, and still be saying “Now come on, Henry, keep your head down, keep your left arm straight, don’t shank it, etc.?” We know all that stuff already. We don’t point it out specifically most of the time, even when we’re practicing.
As the article I was reading this morning points out, everyone gets nervous, but not everyone chokes as a general habit. That’s where Harvard comes in, in an attempt to find out why some do and some don’t. Introducing competitors to a simulator, rewards are increased at a steady rate, and the game is designed to remain difficult through the process, requiring good concentration skills. Sure enough, when the going gets tough, a good hunk of the field starts choking – and the reason for it is not fragility, less talent, or a character flaw. By keying in on the ventrial stratum, a pleasure evaluation center somewhere in the brain, Harvard found that the more is at stake, the more joy and sense of victory, the less excited we get. This little hotbed of dopamine, according to the tests, believes that the scariness of losing, regardless of what it is one loses, is far more intense than the joy of winning something that hasn’t been won yet. In other words, we pre-sabotage our victory with an earlier and more hotly embedded streak of fear. The pleasure center, the “I am Tiger, hear me roar” part of the brain, starts to fret when the crucial moments draw near, and the inner conversation changes from how you’re going to spend the winner’s purse to “Oh my God, what if I…fill in the blanks.”
Fretting that is allowed to repeat itself becomes a pattern, and that’s not Harvard talking – just l’il ole me. It took a hundred experiences with a different outcome to at least soften that 8 up with 9 to go disaster of my childhood. Most of us are not taught the concept of letting oneself go in order to win a match. “Use the force, Luke” is not heard in most golf lessons, and increased discipline and mental toughness is taught instead as the recipe for success.
Harvard has given me food for thought, though. Just imagine, I choke because I care too much. Who knew? At 8 over with 9 to go, I must have cared a whole bunch all those years ago. Next week, I’ll play with a calculated indifference, and we’ll see where that gets me.