A few months ago I posted a feature here about the science of choking under pressure, focusing on the work of University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock. A few days ago Bill Pennington ran a Times post about her work focusing on putting — a skill she uses in her labs to study the different ways we choke. (I played guinea pig one day in that lab, and it cost me $5. I was hustled.) The Times post writes this up nicely. Early on this caught my eye:
I began talking with Beilock last year after I wrote an article wondering why it is that young children learning the game always seem so good at putting. A 10-year-old, in my experience, almost never misses an easy, short putt. I figured it was because a 10-year-old doesn’t feel the weight of expectations and doesn’t have the scars of previous misses.
This reminded me of a putt my older son made several years back, when he was 10 or 11. He’d taken a few lessons that summer, and while his skills weren’t yet polished, you seldom saw him tighten up as he prepared a shot. So there’s something to this, I suppose. And one day we both made the green in one shot on a weird Par 3, and my son had his first op for a birdy. Only problem was, he was about 60 or 70 feet from the hole, and the line to the hole was perpendicular to a very steep slope. If he hit the ball straight at the hole, it would take a sharp right-hand curve and end up far from the target.
So he said, pointing left at a spot far uphill, on a line about 50 degrees to the left of the line from the ball to the cup, “I need to hit it way up there, right? By that brown spot?”