Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice (2010), explains the psychology of choking this way:
“Experts and novices use two completely different brain systems. Long practice enables experienced performers to encode a skill in implicit memory, and they perform almost without thinking about it. This is called expert-induced amnesia. Novices, on the other hand, wield the explicit system, consciously monitoring what they are doing as they build the neural framework supporting the task. But now suppose an expert were to suddenly find himself using the wrong system. It wouldn't matter how good he was because he would now be at the mercy of the explicit system. The highly sophisticated skills encoded in the subconscious part of his brain would count for nothing. He would find himself striving for victory using neural pathways he last used as a novice. This is the neurophysiology of choking. It is triggered when we get so anxious that we seize conscious control over a task that should be executed automatically.”
“Choking doesn't have to happen,” I told Bryan. “It's not an inevitable flaw of performance.”
Recently Daniel Gucciardi and James Dimmock, psychologists at the University of Western Australia, studied 20 experienced golfers with handicaps ranging from zero to twelve, analyzing their success under three separate conditions. The best results were obtained when the golfers stopped thinking about the details of their swing or how to position their hips. When they contemplated a generic and vague cue word or phrase (e.g., “Smooth,” “Balanced,” “Enjoy this”), their performance was no longer affected by anxiety. The positive adjectives did not cause the athletes to lose the flow of expert performance or overrule their automatic brain.
Bryan and I discussed steps he could implement to avoid choking. “Keep it basic and simple,” I suggested. “Try using the acronym STP:”
1. Stay in the moment. Think about what you need to do now--not about what just happened or even about the finish. Breathe slowly and relax your muscles for a moment to help you refocus.
2. Take control of your mindset. When you become aware of a negative thought just note it and move past it to a positive thought. Repeat your selected cue word or phrase. Imagine where you want to go--not where you don’t want to go.
3. Perform with pleasure. Trust your body and the skills you’ve developed. Remember how much you enjoy what you are doing.
“We have a big tournament coming up next month,” Bryan said, as he stood to leave. “I have some STP work to do between now and then.”