The Dreaded



Whether it's the commentators during coverage of a major or a club golfer in the bar after the weekend round, 'choking' is something that all of us have heard about at some point. Here we explore what it is and what you can do to avoid it.

Choking” is a common expression used within golf.  Often it’s a word that strikes fear into golfers of all abilities! But what does it mean to truly choke on the golf course and most importantly is there any way we can stop it?

Beth Yeoman (a Trainee Sport Psychologist, with the British Psychological Society) offers some insights into choking from professional experiences and discusses what the research suggests on why choking occurs and how it may be prevented.

What is choking?

Within golf there are several high profile examples of choking under pressure. For example, you may remember Rory McIlroy’s 2011, “Masters Meltdown” or Jordan Spieth a few years later in the 2016 Masters. Both expert golfers saw their performance significantly decline when under high levels pressure. Not only can choking ruin a good round, but it can also affect your enjoyment for the sport and your overall well-being. Due to the damaging effects of choking, before exploring what you can do to prevent it from happening, it is important to understand what exactly this is.

Choking is when a golfer experiences a dramatic decline in performance, typically when under greater pressure than usual.

For example, a golfer who is leading their club championships may feel a large amount of pressure to perform well, this could lead to their performance dropping significantly from their usual performance level. This would be described as a choke.

What the research suggests

A large amount of research has looked into choking within golf in an attempt to understand why some golfers become victim to the dreaded choke. The explanation that has received the most support from research is the conscious processing hypothesis.

No or little pressure. This theory suggests that when there is little or no pressure, a skilled golfer performs a shot that is well-learnt with very little thought. The movements of the swing are done automatically and the natural flow of the swing is present. This allows plenty of thinking capacity for the golfer to think about other important factors such as the wind or pin position.

An example of a low pressure situation may be a skilled golfer playing a pitch shot on a practice round.

Heightened pressure. However, when pressure is heightened the theory suggests that the golfer starts to focus on consciously controlling their golf swing. As a result, a large amount of the thinking capacity is now taken up by thoughts on how to swing the golf club, leaving little space to think about those other important factors. The brain is now becoming overloaded and the automatic, natural flow of the golf shot is lost. This often results in a choke.

An example of a high pressure situation may be a skilled golfer playing the last nine holes whilst leading the club championships.

What you can do (now)

The all-important question is how can you reduce the likelihood of choking occurring?

Use movement analogies or cue words:

Step One. Devise a word or a phrase that represents the movement of your golf swing. For example, previously used words include “smooth” or “fluid”. This word or phrase should be personal to your swing, so take some time to develop this.

Step Two. When addressing the golf ball repeat this word to yourself in your head. This will stop you from thinking about the specific actions required to make your swing movement.

Step Three. Like any other new skill you learn in golf, it is important that you practice this on the driving range or during friendly rounds before using it within competition. This will help this word or phrase to become a natural part of your pre-shot routine.

Step Four. It is now time to take this technique into a situation when it really matters… When pressure increases, stick to your pre-shot routine, focus on that word or phrase whilst addressing the ball and block out those swing mechanics thoughts that may try and creep in.