Study: Why Golfers Choke


The game of golf is more mental than most sports. Incredible size, strength, and speed aren’t required, although obviously considerable athletic skill is needed to succeed. What’s also necessary is the ability to control fine, precise movements when putting. Some golfers seem unaffected by pressure, and calmly sink putts even when a tournament title is on the line. Others, though, can be susceptible to the “yips” – involuntary reflexes that make accurate putting next to impossible. Why do some golfers crumble under pressure? Brain scans to the rescue:

solving that mystery is the passion of two doctors. Neuroradiologist Yair Safriel and Nick Dewan, a psychiatrist specializing in sports and neuropsychiatry, are using their expertise to try to find a cure.

Armed with a powerful magnetic resonance imaging brain scan at Mease Hospital in Dunedin, Fla., the doctors plan to study 10 area golfers, five with yip symptoms and five without. Each will be told to think about making a short putt while the MRI measures brain activity. Through computer images, the doctors will try to pinpoint the area that triggers the yips. [From the St. Petersburg Times via Scripps-Howard – Modern science tackles the ‘yips’ by Rodney Page.]

According to Dewan, “Our research is the first to take it to this level. That’s very exciting for us. And it should help not only the golfer but other athletes as well. The baseball player who is in a slump, the basketball player that can’t make a free throw. If we can pinpoint where in the brain these type of things happen, we can make great strides.”

Muscle Memory?

One clue to why golfers choke is research showing that the less brain golfers use, the better they are. Safriel notes, “Think of it this way: A person who just turned 16 and is learning to drive is thinking about everything that is going on. A more experienced driver just drives and doesn’t think about it. It’s the same with this.”

Even champion golfers like Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, and Tom Watson suffered from the yips at points in their careers.

The researchers think that if they can identify specific brain activity related to choking behavior, medication or treatment might be developed to alleviate the problem. They also suggest that professional sports teams might start incorporating brain scans in their drafting process to identify players more likely to, say, drop a clutch pass.

Beta Blockers

Classical musicians, who live by their fine motor control abilities in a profession that demands perfection, have long used beta blockers to quiet their version of the yips. Golfers, too, used beta blockers but they are now banned by the PGA and LPGA. It will be interesting to see if the Florida researchers can come up with some specific evidence of yips-related brain activity. That might open the golf associations up to litigation – might not provable “yips” be considered a disability, and corrective medication a reasonable accommodation? Might we then have golfers flocking to get a “yips” diagnosis so they, too, would have access to beta blockers or other drugs that treat the condition?

Weekend athletes and sports marketers might be the biggest beneficiary of the research. Yips-reducing videos, training systems, and so on might flourish once the yips are documented by brain scans. Stay tuned for the results.

  1. Paul Johnson says

    Perhaps more practice should be the solution instead of drugs.

    If “muscle memory” is a better performer than the head, making each move second nature should make good moves — in any endeavor — more predictable.

  2. Richard says

    I HATE the word choke. Nobody on this earth, even when under no pressure, is always on top of their game. So Tiger Woods can establish himself as the most clutch player in the history of golf from the junior ranks to now, but when he goes and shoots a one over par 73 in the final round of the Player’s, many people on this board say he choked.

  3. Carolyn says

    One classical explanation for choking is focusing on a desired result instead of staying in the moment and focusing on the process. The strong desire for a successful result leads in many cases to frustration and choking.

    Concentration on the process, the small steps that need to be repeated over and over again, and recognizing that even with the perfect repetition of a process, results can vary – the odd bounce, the stone that is in the way, etc.

    In fashion, it is the same. WANTING to be a success is almost a surefire way of failing.

    So there might be some neurological difference between staying in the moment vs. prefrontal lobe desired results.

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