Saturday, February 21, 2009

Under pressure, the goal should be to disengage the conscious mind

If you've ever wondered why some players (and coaches) -- even the best ones -- sometimes seem to crack under pressure, you'll be interested in this article from today's Wall Street Journal.

The author contends that "gagging under pressure is painful to watch and miserable to experience," but notes that we can learn from it. In fact, "scientific research in the last few years has helped us get a better handle on what choking is, and suggests strategies for avoiding it."

Choking occurs when we pay too much conscious attention to a well-rehearsed routine that would play out better on autopilot. It is essentially the opposite of panic, which occurs when sudden, fearful circumstances shut down conscious thought and cause us to revert almost entirely to instinct.

Choking is only natural. At the big moment, with our anxieties high, our thinking mind, which we can control, usurps command of our swing from our nonthinking, instinctual side, which we cannot control. This is unfortunate because for skilled players the fine-tuned, rhythmic action of the swing is almost all instinct. The plodding conscious mind can't hope to keep up.

In one experiment, a researcher found that younger, less experienced players (in this case golfers) are better off taking their time when faced with important plays while more experienced ones are wise to simply get on with it instead of mulling it over for any extended period.

"Under pressure, the goal should be to disengage the conscious mind as much as possible."

Experts have other suggestions to avoid "choking," including distracting yourself (humming or talking with a teammate before the shot, kick, etc.) or simply going through a set routine like a robot.

But certainly the best way to fight choking is to put yourself frequently in choke-inducing situations, including artificially during practice, and monitor your reactions. That's why young Tour pros, in explaining their late-round collapses, are often not as heartbroken as we might expect. "If I keep putting myself in these situations, sooner or later I'll win one," they tell the media, and they are right.