Researchers Determine What Makes People 'Choke'

"Then we told them that their partner had already gone through the experiment and had improved," so each participant was led to believe that someone else would lose out if he or she failed.

"That really did it," Beilock says. "They didn't want to lose money for someone else."

The pressure was too great for the first group, those who had learned the skill without any distractions or video cameras. They failed, but it showed that the researchers had indeed caused them to choke.

The experiment got more interesting with the second group because they had been trained in a distracting environment. Their early training had, in effect, "inoculated" them from distractions. So if people choke because they are distracted, and don't pay enough attention to what they are doing, this group should have done well under pressure.

"But they choked," Beilock says.

The third group, however, breezed through without choking. They had learned to play while a video camera had been focused on them (with the threat of pros looking over their shoulders), thus compelling them to concentrate on what they were doing. They had been "vaccinated" against being self-conscious. High pressure didn't cause them to focus on themselves, worrying about every detail.

And that's why they didn't choke, Beilock says.

Turning on Autopilot

Three other experiments support the findings, she adds.

"We bring expert golfers into our lab, and we tell them to pay attention to a particular part of their swing, and they just screw up," she says. "When you are at a high level, your skills become somewhat automated. You don't pay attention to every step in what you're doing."

High pressure can make even the best athlete self-conscious, causing him or her to "try to control their performance in a way that they are not used to," Beilock says.

Maybe what it all means is that to win big, you've got to get your mind off yourself.

The key, she says, is to learn how to relax. Humming a tune while approaching the 18th hole at the U.S. Open might help.

By the way, don't worry about those students who participated in the study. Every one of them got $5. Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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