The Choke Chamber: In Which I Miss A Putt and Fork Over a Fiver

Sian Beilock, the author of “Choke” whose work I wrote about in a feature-length post published a few days ago, knows a lot of ways to make a person fail under pressure. Below, in a slightly tweaked version of an alternative opening for the feature, one I eventually left on the cutting-room floor for structural reasons, is an account of how she worked that magic on me when I visited her last year in Chicago.

If you are an athlete, even of the weekend sort, you best steer clear of the Human Performance Lab, for it exists pretty much just to make people choke — and possibly no one knows more about how to make people choke than the researcher who runs that lab, University of Chicago cognitive psychologist Sian Beilock.

I already knew this when I entered the “Choke Chamber,” as I prefer to call the plain, windowless room that is the Lab. In the weeks before flying to Chicago I had read the papers in which Beilock described the cruel pressures she applied to people in this little room. I entered hoping that knowing these ruses would protect me.

Beilock, with whom I had just enjoyed an amiable lunch, pitted me against a research assistant named Chase Coelho. We were to play a simple putting-accuracy game. From different spots on the smooth, synthetic putting green that formed the lab’s floor, we would putt toward a red dot of tape in the room’s center, trying to leave the ball right on the dot. The winner would be the one whose five putts, in the “real round,” had the least total error.

We practiced a few minutes, chatting, while Beilock looked on holding a clipboard. Then Beilock picked up A

measuring tape, and we began to play. “Two rounds, five putts each” said Beilock. The first would be a “practice round” that supposedly didn’t count, even though she would measure our errors. In the second round, the competition round, would come the pressure. I just didn’t know how.

I did pretty well the first round. I missed by a total of 59 centimeters error over 5 putts; Chase missed by 52.

Then came the money round. Just before we started, a couple strangers (grad students, I correctly guessed) just happened to walk in and assume positions against opposite walls. One on either side of me. No one introduced them. I said hello; they nodded. There they stood the rest of the game, unintroduced and unspeaking, watching our friendly little game.

This, I knew, was meant to bring a bit of audience pressure, or “spotlight anxiety.”

With these two in place, Beilock suggested we “add a little wager to make this interesting,” creating some basic financial pressure. Finally — a nice touch, this — she introduced an “image of failure” by suggesting I choose the amount of the wager, “in you case you lose.”

We began the second round.

“After you,” said Chase. As I set my ball on the floor, he said, “I can see you’ve played some.” This I recognized as a ploy to apply both peer pressure and high expectations. It was working. I could feel myself getting tense. But I listened to myself breathe and still putted well, twice.

But these people don’t let up. They know how to turn even success against you. When I left my second putt within two inches of the target — the best putt of the day so far — Chase said, “He can’t do that twice.” Then Beilock commented that “ That’s an unusual grip you’ve got there, with your finger along the back” — a not terribly subtle attempt to provoke in me a destructive “explicit monitoring” of my mechanics. Finally, before my fifth putt, she said, “Last one!” — a ploy so blatant it drew laughter from Beilock, Chase, me, and even the stonefaces leaning against the wall.

Yet though I recognized most of the tactics, they worked. Three of my putts improved on my first-round average, missing by only two or three inches each. The good putter in me was getting better. But Beilock’s gripe about my grip, just before my third putt, hit home; it caused me to overfocus on the finger along the back of the club, and I drilled the ball 40 centimeters long. Her last, most ridiculous ploy worked as well; after she said, “Last one!” and we all laughed … I knocked the final putt 22 centimeters long. These two chokes produced more error — 62 centimeters — than the combined errors from my entire first round. My 59 first-round score jumped 34 percent, to 79. Chase went from 52 to 62, or 19 percent. He got worse too. But not as bad as I did.

I felt a little better when they told me — later, of course — that Chase was a scratch golfer and had played a high level of golf in college. I liked the guy. But he still walked off with my five bucks.