Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has helped illuminate the cascade of mental events that lead professional athletes to choke. She uses golf as her experimental paradigm. When people are learning how to putt, it can seem like a daunting activity: There’s just so much to think about. Novice golfers need to hold the putter properly and keep their shoulders square. Then, they have to make sure that they hit the little white ball with a smooth stroke, making contact at the center of the putter head and letting the club move to the inside after impact. For an inexperienced player, a golf putt can seem like an endless checklist of do’s and don’ts.
But the mental exertion pays off, at least at first. Beilock has shown that novices hit better putts when they consciously reflect on their actions. The more time they spend thinking about the putt, the more likely they are to avoid beginner’s mistakes and sink the ball in the hole.
A little experience, however, changes everything. After golfers have learned how to putt — once they have memorized the necessary movements — analyzing the stroke is a dangerous waste of time. Beilock has found, for instance, that when experienced golfers are forced to think about their putts, they hit significantly worse shots. All those conscious thoughts erase their years of practice; the grace of talent disappears. And this is why it’s dangerous to compete against a superstar: Players end up thinking up too much.