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How to Avoid Choking in Golf
Selecting an external focus of attention and occupying our controlling minds.
Trying to control our swing under pressure results in performance breakdown
To avoid choking, learn to execute golf shots on “autopilot”
An external focus of attention can help us swing freely
We’ve all been told to “focus” on the golf course.
But what exactly should we be focusing on?
A paper titled An Outcome- and Process-Oriented Examination of a Golf-Specific Secondary Task Strategy to Prevent Choking Under Pressure provides some answers.
Internal vs. External Focus of Attention
Golfers often overlook the importance of where they place their attention prior to executing a shot.
If athletes could think any way they wanted and still play their best game, winning would be determined by skill and effort alone. - Dr. Gio Valiante
Skill level dictates a golfer’s ideal focus of attention (FoA).
…novices have been shown to perform better when focusing internally on skill execution, whereas experts…perform better when focusing externally on the effects of their movements on the environment.
When expert golfers adopt a novice FOA (an internal FOA) the chances of choking increase.
…requiring experts to refocus attention inwardly on the step-by-step processes of skill execution has been shown to have negative consequences for motor performance.
Automated processes (such as a golf swing) can be disrupted by consciously trying to control movement mechanics.
…this attempt to control and monitor movement execution is stated to disrupt the automaticity of well-learned skills, resulting in performance breakdown.
Performance pressure (eg. tournaments) adds fuel to the fire.
…the increase in self-focus produced by performance pressure leads to an increased monitoring of the step-by-step processes of movement execution.
Basically, under pressure, we become more aware of swing mechanics and try to control movements. To combat this, we should use an external FOA.
Heading into tournaments without a clearly defined external FOA makes you more susceptible to a performance breakdown (“choking”).
The return to a more inward (i.e., internal) focus in experts has been viewed as one of the contributing factors in the breakdown of performance under pressure.
Occupy Your Mind
Ideally, we want to execute golf shots on “autopilot”, while keeping our inquisitive minds busy.
High-level performance is stated to be largely automated, operating outside of working memory
Providing expert golfers with a secondary task while they hit a golf ball is a viable way to avoid an internal FOA and potential decline in performance.
Examples of secondary tasks include:
Focusing on ball flight or a target in the distance
Saying “hit” (out loud or in your head) at the moment the club head strikes the ball
The purpose of these tasks is to occupy the mind while making a golf swing.
In effect, the cognitive demands of the secondary task are stated to have prevented a disruption of automaticity by consuming attentional resources and diverting focus away from skill execution.
The ability to execute shots without actively thinking is crucial during tournaments.
Leading up to a tournament, explore different externally-focused secondary tasks. Work towards identifying one (or more) that allows you to execute each shot without active thinking.
Expert golfers can hit a golf ball without allocating many attentional resources to the task. This means that
…attentional resources remain available, which allows for attending to secondary tasks without substantial impact on primary task performance.
Providing our brains with an externally-focused secondary task occupies our inquisitive minds.
Stopping our minds from actively monitoring the golf swing reduces the chances of a performance breakdown.
Lewis, B., & Linder, D. (1997). Thinking about choking? Attentional processes and paradoxical performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 937–944
Bell, J. J., & Hardy, J. (2009). Effects of attentional focus on skilled performance in golf. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 21, 163–177.