The Tight Collar: The New Science of Choking Under Pressure

The Collar

Late in May 2008, perched in superb seats a few rows behind home plate at Chicago’s Cellular Field, I took in a White Sox-Indians game with Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago who studies what is surely, other than serious injury, the most feared catastrophe in sports: the choke.

This is an opportune time to finally run this feature, for the subject of the story, University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock, has just published a book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Tell You About Getting It Right When You Have To. She was working on the book when I researched and wrote this story in summer and fall of 2008. It was a sort of dream assignment for me: baseball and cognitive neuroscience. I went to Chicago and visited Beilock in her lab, where she made me choke in a putting game. (I lost $5 in the deal, too, which I forgot to bill the Times for.) That evening we went to a White Sox game to see someone choke, and were not disappointed. And later that summer, I went to see the White Sox play the Red Sox in Fenway — a splendid, tense game, one of the best I’ve ever seen, in which Chicago lost even as one of its stars redeemed himself while going hitless. Meanwhile, I was introduced to a novel view of what generates or destroys performance under pressure.

Beilock, who not long ago played some high-level lacrosse at University of California, San Diego, traces her own interest in choking back to high school, when she discovered that during the tense, game-beginning face-offs, she more often gained control of the ball if she sang to herself, “to keep me from thinking too much.” Later, in grad school, it occurred to her that if you could avoid choking by engaging your brain with singing, it followed that choking must rise from what neuroscientists like to call mechanisms — that is, systematic, causal chains of brain activity.

She has spent much of her time since then exposing and exploring those mechanisms. Her labs include a putting room where she can find a way to make virtually anyone screw up putts that were easy just moments before. Her work has brought her absurdly early tenure, a rain of prizes and grants, and a flashy book contract. She is a kind of queen of choke.

Which is what brought us to Cellular Field. I’d hate to say we were wishing for someone to choke; more like waiting. And given that baseball offers a hundred openings for pressure’s effects, and that this was a tense game between teams vying for first place — the White Sox led their longtime division rivals, the Indians, by a game and a half — we could wait in confidence, knowing that at some point a player would “suffer,” as Beilock politely phrased it, “a decrement under pressure.”

The game did not disappoint. Through seven innings the pitchers dominated, and the pressure slowly rose. Then, in the eighth, the White Sox, leading 2-1, got a chance to put the game away when the Indians’ pitcher C.C. Sabathia finally tired and was replaced by Jensen Lewis, a rookie, just as the White Sox were sending up their best hitters.

Lewis, perhaps suffering a bit of a decrement himself, walked the first hitter and then surrendered a double that left runners at second and third. When White Sox slugger Jim Thome, who had already homered once, came to bat, Lewis, on orders from the bench, walked him intentionally to get to the next batter.

A certain weight — the weight of great opportunity — falls upon any hitter who steps to the plate with the bases loaded. It falls heavier when the pitcher has just intentionally walked the previous batter.

Feeling this weight now was Paul Konerko, the Sox first baseman. Konerko generally hits well with runners in scoring position, batting a few points higher than his lifetime average, and he could do so in big moments: He had won game 2 of the 2005 World Series, in fact, by homering with the bases loaded.

But Konerko was also a streaky hitter, and lately he had run cold. In fact he was having a terrible season. He was hitting just .212, and he had not homered in weeks. Now, however, he had a chance to break open an important game.

Though I was there to see a choke, I was pulling for the guy. But he had a horrible at-bat.

It was one I could relate to, for I had endured an at-bat remarkably similar to his the week before. (I play in what my wife calls “geezerball,” an amateur league for those over 35.) With two runners on and my team trailing by a single run, I had done everything wrong: I took a hittable fastball for strike one, chased an unreachable curve ball outside, and then stood frozen as strike three — another fastball, which you should always be ready for with two strikes — split the plate.

Now I watched with amazement as Konerko did much the same. He had enough sense to swing at his first-pitch fastball, only he missed it. But after that it was carbon copy: He chased a curveball outside, then stood frozen as a heater blew by for strike three.

Now, I don’t want to say Konerko choked, because (a) he was facing major-league pitching, which is incomprehensibly nasty, and (b) I met Konerko later, and he’s a tremendously likable guy, and I’d hate to hurt his feelings. Yet it seemed clear that if the tremendous pressure of this crucial at-bat had not exactly destroyed Konerko, it had affected him enough to produce a subpar performance. So I don’t want to say he choked. But he gagged.

But what, really, did this mean? What had transpired in his skull to make this feared major-leaguer bat like an amateur?