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See the Line Every Time! The EOB Putting System

Nerves: Panic and Choking Under Pressure

Dear Dr. Putt:
I seem to putt pretty well when I am practicing or when I play by myself or even in a just for fun match. But when there is any money involved or in a tournament situation, I feel really nervous and seem to lose confidence. Please don't just tell me to relax, because the more I try to relax the worse it gets. My friends kid me about choking. Sometimes I feel so full of panic that I think about giving up the game. It would probably help to know that I generally shoot in the middle 80s, occasionally come close to breaking 80, which I have done on a couple of occasions, but under pressure usually have enough 3 putts to be on the wrong side of 90. Please help.
Nervously yours,

Dear Fred,
Your malady is a most common one that is shared by all players sooner or later. The greatest players in the world have this problem. Dr. Putt is sure that you have heard legendary stories about Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and others. Nor is Dr. Putt is immune to a case of the nerves when playing under even minimal pressure. However, you are really asking about two distinctly different problems. In order to address your problem, we must first determine which problem you have: "choking" or panic. Each has distinctly different causes and symptoms and each has different remedies.

A recent article in The New Yorker explored these two different problems (Malcolm Gladwell, "Performance Studies: The Art of Failure: Why Some People Choke and Others Panic," August 21 and 28, 2000, pp.84-93). Dr. Putt recommends it highly. In a nutshell, one is panicking when one's mind goes blank and all knowledge of what one is doing is lost. Extensive experience in such situations often helps one to overcome the stress of performance under pressure, like professional golfers who learn how to win after coming close several times. But in severe cases the learning is lost. One may lose all memory of what to do. One is almost unable to act. The "yips" is really a case of severe panic or anxiety attack. The player becomes almost frozen in fear, unable to even draw the putter back. This is the problem Ben Hogan had in putting. It is said that at times Hogan could hardly draw the putter back. Panic anxiety disorder is a well-studied illness in which significant progress has been made in recent years. Remedies range from visualization exercises (typically one learns to use imagery to slow down one's heart rate and break the downward spiral to panic) to drugs that inhibit the release of chemicals that cause the panic. (For more information about anxiety disorder, visit the Anxiety Disorders Association of America at http://www.adaa.org .) Obviously, the drug approach is inappropriate for panic that is limited to recreational activities such as golf. Sports psychologists help with exercises, like deep breathing and mental imagery to help one control the body's reaction to pressure.

The second kind of nerve related problem is distinctly different. From your comment that the harder you try the worse you do and from your reported usual scores, Dr. Putt would surmise that you fit into this second category. While it is commonly called "choking," it is really something far more complicated. Its symptoms are not mental frozenness and an inability to think or analyze or remember what one is supposed to do. Rather, it is characterized by being too analytical, becoming so mechanical that one loses any sense of touch or feel. The victim of this kind of "nerves" tends to fall back to putting like a beginner who is trying to follow all the lessons she/he has tried to learn. Putting has all the tentativeness and uncertainty of someone playing her/his first round of golf. As Gladwell points out in The New Yorker article, this is what observers saw in the play of Greg Norman in the latter part of the last round in the 1996 Masters from the ninth hole on. His play had all the fluidity of a Saturday hacker.

The remedy is not easy, because what one tends to do is to fall back to basics, which is often good advice when ones game falls apart. While going back to basics may be efficacious for beginners or for more advanced players when new swing techniques are failing under pressure, it is counterproductive for highly skilled players. They need to play without conscious thought. They play best instinctually. They need to rely on the years of muscle memory that has moved well beyond the basics of the elementary golf swing. So going back to basics exacerbates the problem: one is playing basic beginning golf and eliminating all the instinctual play one has learned over the years. The harder one tries, the more likely one is to get too mechanical and lose the feel that is necessary for high quality golf.

The advanced beginner--say, someone who can break 90 consistently--may have experienced this in another context. Suppose our hypothetical advanced beginner has been playing rather well in practice and expects a good round. A few more pars and the 80 barrier will be broken. She/he plays well for a while, but as the round progresses makes a few mistakes. She/he concentrates harder trying to employ the same techniques that were working on the range. After a few disastrous holes, the hopes for an excellent round are lost and she/he totally gives up. Breaking 80 is now totally out of reach. Then, somehow, almost by magic, excellence resurfaces over the last few holes. With no effort she/he makes several pars and maybe even a birdie after making several doubles or worse when trying as hard as she/he can. What has happened? Conscious effort was blocking unconscious muscle memory. Effort interfered with what is called "implicit learning." This implicit learning is what had taken place in practice over a long period of time. It is only possible for one who has learned to play reasonably well with much practice. Golf is too complicated to play totally mechanically, moving from position to position. That is why so many teachers caution the beginner to just swing and feel the clubhead. So if "choking" is reverting back to mechanical basics and losing the feel one has developed through practice, then choking only applies to reasonably good players who have moved beyond mechanical beginning golf. In other words, one has to be pretty good to choke. Fred, Dr. Putt's best guess is that this is you.

Dr. Putt can hear your next question already: what triggers this change? Why did Greg Norman suddenly revert to a something less than an accomplished professional on the ninth hole of the 1996 Masters? And why did our hypothetical advanced beginner suddenly lose all feel for what she/he was doing in the middle of the round? If we can understand what triggers this response, then perhaps the conditions can be changed.

Gladwell argues that this triggering is related to "stereotypical threat," that is, fear that one will live down to negative stereotypes that may exist in the minds of observers. When there are no observers, the threat is not there. Hence, having an audience that may be making critical evaluations of the player is a key condition. That audience could be the crowds of the Masters, Saturday foursome, or even ones inner self (if the inner self thinks that the outer self is a hopeless duffer who can never break 80 except by sheer accident). The natural response is to be extra careful in the face of such an audience--to go back to basics. A wealth of psychological studies supports this finding. Minorities under-perform on tests when they think their intelligence is being measured. White males tend to jump less high when their efforts are being measured by athletic black males. Those being tested are unconsciously living down to the "white men can't jump" stereotype. It is not a matter of giving up in the face of a challenge. We know that the poor performance is not the result of lack of effort. Rather, it is the result of too much effort that results in second guessing and tentativeness.

Thus, the victim of choking faces an “effort trap” (Dr. Putt’s label). Caring about the results increases effort, but increased effort reduces performance. Ones conscious mind is the enemy, because the conscious mind blocks out implicit learning and instinctual play.

So what is the victim to do? One cannot pretend one does not care when one in fact does care deeply. Our hypothetical advanced beginner probably learned that his/her game did not turn around until she/he really and truly gave up the hope of breaking 80. The critical audience had reached its conclusion and had in effect left--the stereotypical threat was confirmed-case closed, at least till the next test. Removing the audience before the failure is not an option (especially if it is an internal audience, and to some extent it always is).

One solution is to remove the stereotypical threat--to believe that the threat does not apply to oneself. If one truly believes that one is better than the opponents, that one deserves to win, and that one will usually win unless some unusual misfortune intervenes, one will play with confidence to the very end. This is the advantage that Tiger Woods has over all his opponents. They face the stereotypical threat, not him. That comes with the experience of success that he has had. When he loses he accepts the loss as an aberration, not as the norm. This is what is meant by “nothing succeeds like success.” Sadly, that option is not available to most of us, because we know we are not the best players in the world. We would have to delude ourselves into thinking that we are even the best players in our club.

What we ask is much more modest-just to play at our own best. So begin with that thought. What has been our own best? Visualize that. Focus on that. Since the conscious mind is the enemy, distract it with visions of past personal victories-and we all have them. They do not even have to be golf victories, though some kind of sports victories, even minor ones, help place the body into a state of relaxed confidence. Dr. Putt likes to think of the time he was demonstrating his putting device for a television reporter with the camera running, and the first putt from 15 feet dropped into the hole. It was his first televised interview and he was very self-conscious. He also thinks of the time he made a three point shot to win a pizza before a crowd at the half time of a college basketball game. When doubt enters his mind on a golf shot, he thinks of it as being as easy as “the pizza shot.” All of us have a “pizza shot” somewhere in our lives. Use it to block out all those other shots that did not turn out so well or to block out tendencies to suddenly think about how tight one should grip the putter.

Another tactic to distract the conscious mind is to occupy it with a routine. Dr. Putt likes to count his way through putts and full swings. He uses a 16 count on most all shots. Consciously counting through a routine promotes a more consistent tempo. It keeps the conscious mind occupied so that it does not stray to thoughts about how terrible a player Dr. Putt really is or will be judged to be by those watching.

Finally, remember that while there are many shots and putts that you would like to make, there are none that you have to make. No one will shoot you or your family if you fail-your family and pets will still love you. It is just a game. That is not a cop-out for not caring and not trying. Dr. Putt is not talking about pretending. He is talking about the truth. And the truth will set you free from caring too much and trying too much. The truth will help you escape the effort trap that leads to choking.

Dr. Putt wishes there were an easy solution to the effort trap that leads to “choking.” If there were, skilled players would rarely falter when they are ahead. But there is not and they do. So, dear Fred, find your “pizza shot,” count through a routine, and embrace the truth that you play best by thinking least and just having fun.

Dr. Putt

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