Choking is the inability to breathe. In golf and life it is poor performance that occurs in response to the perceived stress of a situation (Beilock, 2010). Possible explanations for choking:
- Self-focused attention -what will they think of me?
- Controlling the motion – micromanaging the motion.
- Worry/fear – what will go wrong?
Choking results when the prefrontal cortex (working memory) becomes over involved in the motion. Then the amygdala (an almond-shape set of neurons located deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe) sends out the message of fear. At this point the motion is no longer on automatic, it is under conscious control. To prevent the consciousness from interfering with the motion it is important to keep the prefrontal cortex busy. This can be done any number of ways, including counting backwards by 3s, singing a song or visualizing a movie.
Here are some more suggested techniques to reduce the chances of choking in golf:
- Practice under similar pressure situations, but not necessarily at the same intensity. The same patterns will emerge, just not as intense.
- Journal your worries and image a positive outcome, incorporating all your senses to create the desired outcome.
- Label your fear to reduce how the brain deals with stress. Once it is “chunked” an image can find a solution to release it.
- Focus on WHAT to do, not HOW to do it, i.e. the outcome instead of the process. The mind/body already knows the process and we simply interfere.
- Think about aspects associated with success, drawing upon all of the emotions possible to associate with the successful outcome. The intention, attention and performance will follow.
Blaming puts us in the parietal part of the brain (associated with past memories), and is negatively related to performance. Look at what doesn’t work in golf so you can change it if you choose. Ivan Lendl, a famous tennis player, once told a story of losing to John McEnroe. He had never beaten him so following one loss he sat down and mapped out on paper every shot he missed. He never lost to him again. It is important to know where we miss putts and chip (long, short, high, low) so we can change the patterns if we choose. The mind/body only wants to give us what we ask for, the best way it can today. This is how it is wired.
In a great laboratory choking study (Linder, Lutz, Crews, & Lochbaum, 1998) where heart rates were doubled or higher, anxiety was not correlated with performance. So while anxiety may exacerbate the condition it is not related to performance outcomes. In other words, if anxiety was removed it doesn’t mean all golfers would perform better. As was mentioned previously, the interpretation of the stress (challenge/threat) and the chosen response by the golfer will mediate the relationship between anxiety and performance
In the same choking study (Linder, et al., 1998) those that reported shooting average scores in the 90s did not choke and those that reported average scores in the 80s choked. Perhaps expectations were a part of the mindset of the chokers (Linder, et al., 1998). Of the ten participants, five choked and five actually performed better, even though their heart rates doubled and their brains were very active (Crews, 2001, Crews Ketterling, 2006). The non-chokers were able to maintain synchrony in their mind/body system and perform. The non-chokers reported using past experiences from other sports as a model to manage the pressure in the current situation. Patterns exist from our life experiences that can be used in any situation, golf, life and reverse. It is only the pattern that we must change, not each situation. We can change from the inside out so the outside world is not running our life.
Saying “Relax” is pet peeve many people have. “Calm” might be better but “synchronized” is best. No matter how challenging the situation, if we can synchronize our mind/body we can perform. Our heart rate can be 60 or 160 beats per minute and we will succeed if we are in “sync”. The engagement and entrainment of the whole system, including the club, ball and target, will create the desired performance and breathing is the key to synchronization. Golfers breathe at the beginning of the routine to focus in on the shot and they breathe again right before and during the motion. The pattern for best performance is “out” before we move (centers our being and releases excess tension so any error will not be as big), “in” as we swing back (normal breath) and “out” as we go forward and release our energy (transfer) to the ball toward the target. Most golfers aren’t able to think about the whole breathing pattern. So if they simply get air “out” before they start this helps create the optimal heart and brain patterns to swing and they will probably do fine. If we have air left in our body at the end of the swing, we did not give it all to the ball and it is likely the swing was slightly mistimed. We were slightly out of synchronization. Breathe out during the forward motion and the swing will be timed correctly. Breathing is what we do for 18 holes of golf or 100 years of life. When we stop breathing we have finished both.
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