Sport Psychology: Golf players and choking under pressure

Do Pro Golfers 'Choke'?

Choking’ under pressure is a well-worn phrase used to excuse or explain below-par performances in sportsmen and women of whom greater things were expected. It is often used with a derisory tone, particularly during the annual British humiliation at Wimbledon, when Tim Henman crashes out yet again at the point of highest expectation.

Pressure in this context has been defined by one expert as ‘any factor or combination of factors that increases the importance of performing well on a particular occasion’, and ‘choking’ as ‘performance decrements under pressure circumstances’.

There is consistent evidence from laboratory experiments that choking under pressure is a real phenomenon. But how prevalent is it among highlyskilled athletes? The scientific evidence is mixed, with some research teams finding support for the concept and others not.

In a bid to shed new light on the controversy, Texan psychologist Russell D Clark carried out a wide ranging survey of US professional golfers taking part in three tours in 1999: the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Tour, the Senior PGA Tour and the Ladies PGA Tour, consisting of a total of 114 tournaments.

For each tour, the scores of players who were either leading the tournament going into the final round or who were within one shot of the lead were compared to the scores of players who were two, three, four and five strokes off the lead.

Clark was testing the following hypothesis: the most pressure – and thus the greatest temptation to ‘choke’ – should be on the players who are one shot from the lead, with the leaders themselves being under slightly less pressure. However, both should be under higher pressure than players who are four or five strokes from the lead because their chances of winning are diminished. Thus if professional golfers are ‘choking’, those who are leading and one shot from the lead should have higher (ie worse) final round scores than those who are two or more strokes from the lead.

A secondary hypothesis was that pressure – and thus the risk of ‘choking’ – should be greater for leading players in top-tier events than in the less prestigious tournaments.

However, the results did not support either of these theories. The results for players’ final round scores indicated that the majority of the low-scoring (ie leading) were not ‘choking’ under pressure. In both top-tier and second-tier tournaments for all three tours, there were no differences in final round scores for players who either were leading, one shot or 2-5 shots away from the lead. Furthermore, across each of the tours, players who entered the final round leading won the majority of events.

The author acknowledges that one limitation of his study is that it is based on ‘archival data’, including no direct assessment of the golfers’, internal psychological states. However, he concludes: ‘The lack of support in the present study for an hypothesis of ‘choking’ under pressure suggests that results from laboratory studies may overestimate the prevalence of ‘choking’ among professional golfers’.

Percept Mot Skills 2002 June;94 (3 pt 2): pp1124-30

Isabel Walker

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