Avoid choking in unrehearsed situations

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, September 2015.

When Dustin Johnson hit the green in two strokes on the 18th hole, he had a putt for an eagle and the 2015 U.S. Open championship. Instead, three putts later, he settled for second. The putt for eagle was a tricky 12-foot putt, but the putt for birdie to force a playoff with Jordan Spieth was a 4-foot putt. According to PGATour.com stats, Johnson had made 96% of his putts inside 5 feet this season prior to the U.S. Open. The popular narrative was that Johnson choked. 

When an athlete learns a skill such as putting, the skill is stored in his procedural memory that uses the motor cortex, basal ganglia, and the parietal lobe. These skills are automated and perform at a subconscious level – the athlete does not control the movements through conscious thought. Sport skills typically are performed in a short time frame and combine many complex movements. When an athlete controls these movements consciously, the skill takes too long to coordinate, and the execution is less accurate. This conscious or active thinking occurs in the prefrontal cortex and disrupts the skill execution, leading to paralysis by analysis or choking.

In Choke, Dr. Sian Beilock (2010) defined choking as “poor performance that occurs in response to the perceived stress of the situation…Choking is sub-optimal performance. It’s when you…perform worse than expected given what you are capable of doing, and worse than what you have done in the past. This less-than-optimal performance doesn’t merely reflect a random fluctuation in skill level…This choke occurs in response to a highly stressful situation.” Because Johnson was successful on 96% of similar putts, he performed below his demonstrated ability, and we associate this miss with the pressure of the situation. However, Johnson ranked 131st on the PGA Tour in putting on putts under 5 feet. With the difficulty of the greens at Chambers Bay, did Johnson really choke or was it a random fluctuation in skill (unlucky)?

Beilock’s purpose in Choke was to show that skilled athletes perform better when they do not over-think their skill execution. Conscious thinking has a negative effect on the execution of a learned skill. Stress results in conscious thinking, and the solution is to allow the subconscious to control the movements. Beilock’s premise is correct – expert athletes should rely on their well-practiced habits rather than trying to control their performances at crucial moments – but her examples suggest problems beyond choking or overthinking.

In one chapter, she described a study of the shooting practice of police officers. Half of the officers practiced shooting at opponents who fired back, and half shot at cardboard targets. “For those officers who practiced shooting at an opponent, after training they were just as good shots when aiming at the live individual as they were aiming at the stationary cutouts,” (Beilock, 2010). Meanwhile, the group that shot at cardboard targets missed more shots when shooting at a live target. Beilock attributed the difference to the practice dealing with stress, but she failed to mention a learning effect.

When a baseball player hits at the batting cages, the pitch’s speed is preprogrammed. Pitches arrive on the same plane with little movement. There is no difference in angle or trajectory between a right-handed pitcher and a left-handed pitcher because the ball is released down the middle from a perfectly vertical machine. During a game, pitchers change speeds, locations, and planes. Different pitchers throw from different angles and release points; their timing and rhythm differs. The pitching machine offers different visual cues than a pitcher in a live game. Against the pitching machine, the objective is to make good contact; in a game, the objectives may change depending on the score, inning, and runners on base. Hitting against a pitching machine and hitting live pitching differ greatly in terms of complexity and difficulty. Practicing against a pitching machine does not prepare a player for the variability and complexity of a live pitcher.

The differences between a pitching machine and a pitcher are similar to the differences between shooting at a cardboard target and shooting at a live combatant. The live situations induce more stress, but future performance is due to more than inoculation against the stress. Because a baseball player hits live pitching and the police officer’s test was against live combatants, practice in the live situations adhered to the principle of specificity. The principle of specificity suggests that to improve in a skill, the practice must be as specific as possible to the skill performance. Hitting a baseball is more than swinging a bat; the complexity of hitting in a game is reading the pitch, anticipating its speed, spin, and location, and deciding whether or not to swing. The police officer’s test was more than firing a gun; the skill was firing the gun while avoiding enemy gunfire. Sure, avoiding gunfire is stressful, but the non-live practice is not specific to the test. The non-live practice – whether a pitching machine or shooting at a cardboard cutout – under-prepares the performer for the complexity of the live task.

The cardboard-target group did not choke; it was unable to transfer its learning to a more complex environment. To expect someone to shoot under fire, he must practice under fire, just as a hitter must practice against live pitching. When a hitter hits like an All-Star against a pitching machine, and like a late-inning defensive replacement in games, did he choke or is his practice insufficient preparation for the demands of the game? Stress is a component of the failure, but it is not choking when there is no evidence to suggest that the performance is sub-optimal.

I have never seen Johnson practice his putting. However, if he practices on well-manicured greens, his practice may not have prepared him for the bumpy greens with dry grass. His less complex practice may have been insufficient for a more complex course.

It is impossible to simulate the pressure of a $10-million putt or a 9th inning at-bat in the World Series, but we can improve our ability to perform in these situations by improving our practice. Practicing under more complex conditions will improve performance in complex and simple conditions, but practicing in simple conditions often will not transfer to more complex situations. In sports such as baseball that have an opponent, practice must account for the variability and unpredictability of the opponent. In sports such as golf that lack a direct opponent, practice must account for all potential conditions and environments. When we focus on perfect practice under ideal conditions, we under-prepare for live situations. When this occurs, the media describes mistakes or failures as choking, but the reality is that our practice was insufficient for the complexity of the live situations.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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2 Responses to “Avoid choking in unrehearsed situations”

  1. Mike says:

    Another thing that may have negatively affected Johnson is that the majority of golfers often use block practice on the putting green or driving range rather than random or interleaved practice. Watch the putting green at any course and you will often see golfers drop 2 or 3 balls in one spot and hit to the same hole. Phil Mickelson is famous for sinking 100 consecutive 3 ft putts as a practice routine. Of course, if you look at Mickelson’s career he has a history of missing short puts that hurt his chances in major championships despite this drill.
    But people love the gimmick (maybe not the best word) drills that look good and may not transfer rather than the specific “boring” drill of dropping one ball and putting to random targets and not just raking another ball over. You never hit two putts from the same place in a round of golf, why practice it.
    Now, I don’t profess to know Johnsons’ practice routine but I’m willing to bet it was more block than random.

  2. BrianMcCormick says:

    Mike:
    Good points. I’m not a golfer, nor do I follow golf at all. However, I know about the general practice routines on the greens and hitting range. I’ve tried to discuss this with friends who play, but “that’s just what golfers do”, and I don’t care at all about golf, so I let it go. It seems the “that’s how we’ve always done it” argument is pervasive throughout sports, and someone is always going to be the best, so there is always someone to highlight to defend the old ways (although, you often find that the perception of someone’s practice on the outside often differs from the reality). Of course, that ignores everyone else who practiced the same way and was not the best! It’s confirmation bias: we look for the examples that support what we believe (the old way), and we ignore the examples that contradict what we believe.

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