Choking: It's in the mind

People: Using athletes, scientists are trying to determine why some fold when times get tough and others shine.

Medicine & Science

April 14, 2003|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SUN STAFF

Steve Reeves knows the feeling well: an inescapable sense that no matter what he does or thinks, the little white ball will not roll where he so desperately wants it to.

"It's very easy to convince yourself that you're going to miss a putt," says Reeves, 44, a former club pro who is now marketing director at River Downs Golf Club in Finksburg. "It's like walking in quicksand. The more you struggle, the deeper you go."

Almost everyone, from Olympic athletes to public speakers, goes through the humbling experience Reeves describes: crumbling under pressure - or, as it's more brutally known, choking.

Reeves battled through his problem by altering his routine, tweaking his stroke and adjusting his mindset. But performing under pressure remains a murky, poorly understood enterprise.

Should you calm yourself down or psych yourself up? Should you focus on the task at hand, or think about something unrelated? Why do some people fall to pieces when the stakes are high, while others function better than ever?

The phenomenon fascinates us - last night alone, millions agonized with Len Mattiace as he botched an approach shot, a chip and a putt to lose the Masters playoff to Mike Weir.

Now, using golfers, goalies, marksmen and other sports figures as guinea pigs, scientists are trying to pinpoint what happens in the brains and bodies of people trying to do their best when the chips are down.

"The knowledge that we get will relate to all those who are performing under pressure, whether they're pilots or golfers or ICU nurses." says Dr. Aynsley Smith, director of Sports Psychology Research at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Soldiers in combat may eventually benefit, too. Scientists at the Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground are planning a study that will use a room-size video projection system to replicate the pressure of a firefight.

Smith has studied pressure for 10 years, examining golfers, hockey goalies and musicians. Her findings often contradict the advice coaches offer before a big game.

For example, in eight years of observing high school and minor league goalies, she found that their heart rates often average more than 170 beats a minute - extremely fast, considering that they spend so much time standing relatively still. Although far from calm, most performed well.

"I used to try to teach the goalies to relax," says Smith, who has advised several college and National Hockey League teams. "But it's not about being relaxed. It's about learning to deal with not being relaxed."

Now, instead of telling players to try to calm down, she counsels them to enjoy, or at least accept, the adrenaline rush.

This summer, Smith plans a study of golfers - a putting tournament that pits chokers against nonchokers. During the contest, participants will be hooked to devices measuring brain waves, heart rate and other physiological indicators.

Among the possible subjects is Bob Keller, a retired club pro from Sarasota, Fla. Twenty-five years ago, Keller suddenly found that he couldn't putt without twitching and jerking - or freezing altogether.

On the practice green, he's great, but when he steps onto a regular course, his putting "yips," as the problem is known in golf, return. He has tried everything: oddly shaped clubs, contorted stances, even hypnotism. To no avail.

"My whole body just tightens up," he says. "The putter comes to the ball, and it just stops. It locks up. It's a bad feeling. I guess I'm so scared of missing it that I won't even let it try to miss."

Keller's problem may stem from focusing too much. Some scientists now suspect that success requires concentrating less, not more.

"Pressure prompts you to pay attention to what you're doing," says Michigan State University psychologist Sian Beilock. "For people who are highly skilled, this is a bad idea."

Walking, she says, is a good example: "If you're going down the street and I ask you to pay attention to how you're bending your knee, then you'll probably slow down, or you might stumble."

In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Beilock tested this hypothesis by telling a group of golfers that if they didn't make enough putts, their partners would lose prize money they had earned .

Faced with this scenario, most golfers did much worse than they had without the added pressure.

"Peer pressure is always a good stressor," Beilock says with a laugh. But one group did better - those who had undergone a previous training session where they were videotaped. Beilock's theory: The pressure-filled training taught them not to pay extra attention when the stakes increased.

Because the sport is so filled with opportunities to choke, researchers gravitate to golf as a lens into high-stakes behavior.

In one study, Mayo Clinic researcher Debbie Crews used 41 electrodes per golfer to measure brain waves, muscle tension and heart rate. To raise the stakes, each golfer received a finger prick from a small needle every time they missed a putt.

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