Watching Jordan Spieth choke at the Masters provided a stark reminder about the importance of mental toughness when it comes to sport success. Spieth, the defending Masters champion and one of the top players in the world rankings, shot a quadruple-bogey on the 12th hole at Augusta Sunday, essentially ending his chances that he would repeat as champion.
What is “choking?”
Choking derives from sport psychology slang and can be defined as being unable to succeed at tasks that have previously been accomplished (sometimes even mastered) in practice-situations and/or games. Choking is not inevitable, nor is it a biological condition or mental disorder — and it has absolutely nothing to do with one’s self-worth. Choking has little to do with physical abilities, and even the worst “choker” can learn relatively easy skills that can eliminate choking. In fact, choking is actually quite normal — and to be expected — especially if an athlete struggles with and/or doesn’t develop mental toughness.
In actuality, we all choke from time-to-time, it’s just that our gaffes are rarely televised in front of a worldwide audience like Spieth’s was on Sunday. We have all missed test questions we knew, said things we didn’t mean to say in conversations, and, of course, failed in sport situations where we previously succeeded.
How to fix choking
Using a cognitive-behavioral psychological approach to correcting choking, two inter-related dimensions must be addressed:
- How you “see” (interpret) situations. While we don’t always have control of the things thrown at us or the situations we face in life, we do have 100% control over how we frame our challenges. When we “see” obstacles as threatening, we tighten up and lose our focus and ultimately perform below what we are capable of achieving. Conversely, by “seeing” healthy life challenges, we turn our focus and energy toward success (and choke less often as a result).
- What you do (behaviors) to address arousal and focus. When we perceive situations as pressure-packed we usually experience an increase in anxiety and a distortion of focus. In these instances, the body reacts with shallow breathing, rapid heart-rate, stomach butterflies, and tight muscles; and our focus either wanders toward insignificant factors or becomes so narrow that we strive to be perfect (which often compounds our anxiety level). By learning how to direct focus and regulate energy, we perform at our highest levels.
The best approach to improving along both objectives above is to frame situations as healthy challenges, and learn sport psychology skills to help moderate arousal and direct focus toward relevant cues. Fortunately, skills like deep breathing, positive self-talk, cue word utilization, and imagery can be learned and applied by athletes of all ages and skill level and will mitigate many of the factors that lead to choking.
Jordan Spieth is an amazing golfer, and will undoubtedly have many more great rounds of golf in the future. Sadly, his mental toughness took a hit on Sunday with a quadruple-bogey on a hole he ordinarily pars or birdies. Fortunately for Spieth, mastering mental toughness for the future likely won’t be anywhere near as challenging as it has been to learn to play the game of golf at a world-class level.