Why We Choke Under Pressure (and How Not To) (Ep. 341)
Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Why We Choke Under Pressure (and How Not To).” (You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)
It happens to just about everyone, whether you’re going for Olympic gold or giving a wedding toast. We hear from psychologists, economists, and the golfer who some say committed the greatest choke of all time.
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.
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If you’re a big golf fan — and, statistically speaking, you are almost certainly not — but if you are, you know this is the week of the Open Championship, or what Americans call the British Open. It’s the oldest and arguably most important major tournament in golf. This year it’s being held at the Scottish course Carnoustie, which is so difficult it’s often called Car-nasty. Carnoustie also hosted the Open back in 1999.
Brandel CHAMBLEE: The golf course was so hard that it inevitably was going to give us some bizarre conclusion.
That’s Brandel Chamblee. He played on the PGA Tour for 15 years; now he’s an analyst for the Golf Channel.
CHAMBLEE: There was going to be a train wreck at some point.
And yet, on the tournament’s final day, on the final hole, stood a man who had tamed the savage course.
This man, with one hole to play, held a three-stroke lead. So obvious was his impending victory that his name had already been engraved on the Open’s iconic trophy, the Claret Jug. It read: Jean Van de Velde.
CHAMBLEE: He was a very handsome, debonair Frenchman, and he had a gorgeous golf swing.
Van de Velde was ranked just 152nd in the world.
CHAMBLEE: He was not a good driver of the ball. He didn’t drive it long, and he drove it crooked. Although, that week, for whatever reason, he found another gear that week, he did drive it long
History wasn’t necessarily in Van de Velde’s favor:
CHAMBLEE: He would have been the first Frenchman in over 100 years to have won the Open Championship. And there was a sense that Frenchmen don’t win majors. Frenchmen paint beautiful paintings and they write epic books about democracy and revenge. They don’t win the Open Championship.
But standing on the final tee with a three-stroke lead? If you are a professional golfer, you will not lose that tournament. How ludicrous would that be? Imagine a professional chef; she’s about to make an omelet. She goes to crack an egg on the side of the bowl — but instead, she somehow misses the bowl entirely and smashes the egg all over her face. That’s how ludicrous it would be to lose a golf tournament standing on the last tee with a three-shot lead. It would require a grotesque combination of decisions and actions. There is a word for this. It is such a horrific word that some people don’t even like to say it aloud. We’re not one of those people.
Sian BEILOCK: There’s lots of different ways people can choke.
Steve JARDING: The choke is an amazing thing, because it really does destroy careers.
BEILOCK: It doesn’t have to be the Olympic Games. It can be when you’re parallel parking, and people around you are watching, right?
Today on Freakonomics Radio: when we choke, why we choke — and maybe, just maybe, how not to.
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If we’re going to talk about choking, we probably need to bring in some psychologists.
Anders ERICSSON: I’m Anders Ericsson and I’m a professor of psychology at Florida State University here in Tallahassee, Florida.
Anders Ericsson, pioneer of the “deliberate practice” movement and the 10,000-hours idea, has been studying expert performers for years.
ERICSSON: [From “How to Become Great at Just About Anything”] Ballet dancers, gymnasts, and all sorts of athletes; we’ve looked at chess experts, surgeons, doctors, teachers, musicians, taxi drivers, recreational activities like golf, and even, there’s some research on scientists.
DUBNER: Define choking for me as you see it?
ERICSSON: Well, choking, to me, is actually somebody who cramps up and in some ways becomes unable to really act appropriately in a situation, or acts in a very decreased performance.
BEILOCK: I define choking as worse performance than you’d expect from an individual, given that there is high pressure or stakes associated with the situation.
And that’s Sian Beilock.
BEILOCK: I’m a cognitive scientist, and I am president of Barnard College at Columbia University.
Before coming to Barnard, Beilock ran the Human Performance Lab at the University of Chicago. She also wrote a book called Choke.
DUBNER: So I’m curious to know if you can sort of rank the different domains that people engage in regularly, and where we’re most likely to choke.
BEILOCK: I really think that any situation where there’s expectations for success can cause choking, and it doesn’t have to be the Olympic Games. It can be when you’re parallel parking, and people around you are watching, right? Or if you’re in an elevator and you’re trying to figure out whether you’re going to say something to the person next to you. We talk about these epic moments of choking, but it’s a desire to perform at our best, and situations in which we’re evaluated happen constantly.
DUBNER: Give me a little bit on the characteristics of those who are more and less prone to choke. What about high I.Q. versus low I.Q.?
BEILOCK: In my research and in others’, we’ve shown perhaps counterintuitively that individuals who have the most ability to focus, the most working memory, the most fluid intelligence, are actually more prone to perform poorly under stress. And the idea is that if you normally devote lots of cognitive resources to what you’re doing and being in a pressure-filled situation robs you of those resources, you can’t perform as well.
DUBNER: You’ve just described all the reasons why I’m not very good at playing golf under pressure. And what about, say, gender? Male versus female, more or less likely to choke?
BEILOCK: I think it’s really dependent on the situation. So, we know that when women are aware of stereotypes that they shouldn’t perform well — maybe they’re aware of stereotypes that men are better at math, even though I think these stereotypes are quite unfounded — just being aware of that can affect how they perform. And it can be because you’re anxious about math, and so you can’t calculate the tip on the dinner bill as your smart friends look on, or it could be because you’re a girl in a room full of men, trying to think and compute math problems, and you’re aware that there’s ideas out there that you shouldn’t be as good at what you’re doing.
DUBNER: And then let me just ask you one more kind of summary about surroundings. So, I know that you write — I kind of loved this, but also felt a little creeped out, no offense — that your parents would often travel great distances to see you present, like at an academic seminar. And by great distances, we’re talking Australia!
DUBNER: Your dad flew to Australia to see you give a talk at a seminar? Is that true?
BEILOCK: Yeah, it’s true. And it’s still true in my current role. My mother shows up at lots of events, and I’ve actually instructed my assistant to not give out my calendar without permission to her. It’s very supportive, but also stress-inducing.
DUBNER: So, on that note, talk about choking in what you might call a friendly environment versus a hostile environment.
BEILOCK: There’s research showing that when you have friendly faces in front of you, people who are supportive — although that could feel nice, it actually creates pressure-filled situations. You often start thinking of yourself as they might. And so when my mother is in the room, I sometimes think of myself as a young girl. And you also are quite self-conscious.
In a recent episode about the World Cup, we looked at the research into why there’s such a strong home-field advantage in most sports. The most plausible explanation is that referees are subconsciously influenced by the home crowd, and may make one or two key calls in the home team’s favor. The research also showed that, on balance, athletes themselves do not perform better in front of a home crowd. And, in fact, when Sian Beilock tells us that “friendly faces” may actually “create pressure-filled situations,” you have to wonder if, on some dimensions, they might perform even worse.
Alex KRUMER: My main research interests are behavioral economics, contest theory, and sports economics.
That’s Alex Krumer. He’s an economist at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. He recently co-authored a paper called “Choking Under Pressure in Front of a Supportive Audience: Evidence from Professional Biathlon.” That’s the sport combining cross-country skiing with precision rifle shooting. Krumer analyzed the performance of more than 400 biathletes, male and female, over 15 years of competition, including World Championships and the Olympics. How did they do at home versus abroad? Let’s look first at the skiing portion:
KRUMER: So, we find that home biathletes, they ski faster at home, about two seconds faster.
Okay, so maybe all those home cheers do spur the athletes to ski faster. How about the shooting?
KRUMER: Both men and women missed more shots when competing in their home country compared to competing abroad.
Men missed, on average, 0.15 more shots at home than abroad. Women — a bit more: 0.2 shots.
KRUMER: One may say that this is not too much, but it’s quite a large effect if we take into account that the average time it takes to ski a penalty loop is about 25 seconds.
That’s right: for every missed shot, you have to ski a small penalty loop.
KRUMER: This means that when competing at home, a biathlete loses on average four to six seconds. And to put this number into perspective, in the Olympic Games in Sochi, the home biathlete athlete Anton Shipulin — which, by the way, I really love his performance — he was only 0.7 seconds away from a bronze medal after missing one shot.
But what if skiing faster is what causes you to miss more shots?
KRUMER: One may assume that since they ski faster they have higher heart rate, and therefore they miss more. But the evidence on the association between heart rate and shooting performance is mixed.
Okay, so that doesn’t seem to explain the worse shooting at home. Is there maybe another explanation?
KRUMER: The second explanation is that usually they perform the shooting task in a very automatic manner. They don’t look around, they don’t care about anything. But probably when you perform at home, something disturbs you.
Krumer tells us that biathletes usually “perform the shooting in a very automatic manner.” That sounds like it might be relevant to our choking discussion. So what, exactly, does that mean? Back to the psychologist Sian Beilock:
BEILOCK: We know that sometimes people don’t perform up to their potential, precisely when they want to the most. And sometimes that happens because people pay too much attention to the details of what they’re doing, details that should be left on autopilot.
At the Human Performance Lab, Beilock and her colleagues did an experiment with expert golfers and novices.
BEILOCK: So we set up a putting green in our lab. And when we tried to ask experts for their memories of how they’d taken a putt, they couldn’t tell us so much about it. The novices, the people who were just learning, could tell us way more. And we thought, “Wow, this might be an indication that these high-level golfers aren’t paying so much attention to what they’re doing. And so one of the reasons that they might perform poorly under stress is when they start paying attention.”
DUBNER: The way you’ve just put that would not be that surprising to anyone who follows let’s say golf per se, right?
BEILOCK: It is true that sometimes athletes have these these moments of feelings of being in the zone. But I think we often don’t think about this idea that paying too much attention could actually be counterproductive. Like, if your coach is yelling, “Concentrate!” all the time. And so being able to actually show that when you’re at this high level you’re not paying attention to the details, and one of the reasons you mess up is because you start paying attention to those details, allowed us to start asking questions about how we prevent you from paying attention to details.
ERICSSON: What is it that people actually are thinking about when they’re doing putting?
Anders Ericsson also did putting experiments in his lab, at Florida State, with somewhat different results.
ERICSSON: So, we actually asked our participants to think out loud, and recruited skilled and less-skilled individuals. And what we found was that the skilled individuals, they were actually verbalizing more about thoughts and, basically, factors that they were taking into account, in order to actually decide how they were going to putt the putt. So the argument is that, if you’re really skilled, you’re actually generating a rich description here of the situation. So, you’re trying to take into account here how, basically, the ball will roll and where you need to aim in order to have the appropriate ball path.
DUBNER: I know that some psychologists argue that what separates the better performers, the top-tier performers, from the rest of us, is some form of automaticity, right? That you’re going into some free-flowing state that’s dependent on all your talent and experience, et cetera, but you’re not actually engaging in it cognitively. You’re saying that’s not what you found.
ERICSSON: What we’re finding is that experts are able to make adjustments when they’re performing. So if you’re a musician and the acoustics in a given performance environment is different, you can actually make adjustments, in the same way that a soccer player, when the situation changes, they can actually make adjustments appropriate to that situation, and I think that’s what we’re finding here, is that the really elite people, those who are really able to keep improving, are the ones who actually have a very refined description of the situation and are increasing their control over what they’re doing, as opposed to allowing it just to happen.
DUBNER: So let me ask you this, Anders: To what degree do you believe that choking is the factor, or a main factor, that actually separates an absolute top-tier performer from someone who’s talented but doesn’t reach the top tier? In other words, is the expert — is the professional — the very good performer who has learned to not choke?
ERICSSON: My experience is that choking is quite rare by those individuals that we study, who are consistently excelling. And it seems to be almost part of being an expert is that you deal with the kind of situations that would be experienced as very high-pressure for other people.
So that’s an interesting continuum: high-pressure performances can lead to choking, but expert performers — who compete under pressure all the time — tend to not choke. Of course, it does happen.
Jeremy ABBOTT: For me, it was terrifying.
Jeremy Abbott was one of the best figure skaters in the world. He won the U.S. men’s championship four times, and went to the Olympics in 2010 and 2014. Things didn’t go so well at the Olympics:
Scott HAMILTON: [From NBC Olympics coverage] Opening with a quad toe right here. Oh. Short of rotation, could not pull that landing together. Hard fall there.
Sandra BEZIC: This is a disastrous performance.
ABBOTT: It was unlike any other situation I’d ever been in. All of my practice and all of my preparation, once I got to the Games, everything leading up to that moment, both Olympics, in Vancouver and in Sochi, I was really excited, I could see the rings. And the moment I went out in Vancouver, and in Sochi, every insecurity that I had about myself and about my skating was just magnified by a million. And I was just so focused on not wanting to make a mistake — I was in the wrong mindset.
Both times, Abbott failed to medal in the individual events. He retired from competitive skating in 2016, and he now coaches in Detroit. He uses his own experience to help the next generation.
ABBOTT: I should have been focusing less on outcome and less on performance and more on the process and getting my job done, and accomplishing what I do every single day in training, and really taking all of that experience and all of that work and putting it to use, rather than focusing on, “What if that, what if this,” anything could happen. But whenever I skated my best, it was never focusing on a placement or a point total or pleasing somebody else. It was always just, “Okay, I’m here, and I’m going to do a job.” And that was when I always skated my best.
BEILOCK: It’s precisely those times when you do start thinking too much that you can flub a performance.
Sian Beilock again.
BEILOCK: And so any situation that causes you to attend in ways that you might not normally can mess you up.
DUBNER: So, can I just say, I love our species. I think we’re kind of awesome. I mean we have some flaws, and so on, but doesn’t it seem like a weird counterbalance that we tend to choke most in the circumstances, as you’ve been telling us, that matter the most to us? Doesn’t that just seem like a design flaw?
BEILOCK: It is interesting. I guess you could say that maybe we haven’t adapted to those situations yet. We’ve certainly been in social situations for a long time, but our level of self-consciousness and meta-cognitive ability — the ability to know what we and others are thinking — is something that’s probably fairly recent, evolutionarily-wise.
So we should probably take a look at how we think differently, and perform differently, as the stakes rise.
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When psychologists think about choking under pressure, they consider a variety of thought processes that may be subtle and hard to measure. Economists look at choking a bit differently.
Uri GNEEZY: Say that you would have paid me a million dollars if I’ll give the best interview of the week.
Uri Gneezy is an economist at the University of California, San Diego.
GNEEZY: That would have made me very nervous. That would have made me put more effort into this. When we look at incentives in economics, we think about two ways in which it’s going to affect us. The first is that if I’ll pay you more, you’ll put more effort in the task. And the second assumption is that more effort will lead to better performance. That’s not necessarily true. And that’s the part of choking. It might be that I can push you so much to try so hard that it will actually backfire, and you’ll perform worse.
Gneezy co-authored one of the foundational economics papers on choking. It’s called “Large Stakes and Big Mistakes.” He and his colleagues ran experiments in a variety of places, including India:
GNEEZY: The reason we wanted to go to India is that over there, our money can go a long way. So we went to some villages in India in which the daily wage was so low that we could offer them up to six months of salary in our experiment if they did perfectly well.
Each participant completed a series of tasks. Some were creative:
GNEEZY: So, the creative one was, for example, to pack pieces of metal into a box in an efficient way.
Some tasks were cognitive:
GNEEZY: A memory game in which I would read up numbers and you listen to me and then at some point say “Stop,” and then you’ll have to recall the last three numbers that I mentioned.
And some tasks were athletic.
GNEEZY: Throwing dart-like balls, so balls on a target, and things like that.
The payout for successful completion of the task was variable. In some cases, you’d get 10 cents; in others, $1; and in others, $10.
GNEEZY: And $10 was about what they made in a month over there. I hope that you agree with me that six months of pay is a lot of money that would make you work much harder, right? And the question was, are you going to be better actually when you work harder?
As Gneezy noted earlier, it’s a standard assumption in labor economics that higher pay leads to more effort, and that more effort leads to better performance, or at least higher productivity. What happened in this case, when the stakes were raised all the way to $10?
GNEEZY: So, the findings were striking. You see reduction in success rates across the board. All six games that we played resulted in lower success rate when the incentives were really high.
For the three-digit memory game, roughly 40 percent of the participants succeeded under low incentives; under high incentives, the success rate was just 20 percent. For the dart-ball game, the success rate under low incentives was 10 percent; and around 7 percent under high incentives. For the metal packing game? Under low incentives, 25 percent of the participants succeeded; under high incentives, nobody succeeded. Or, put another way, at least 25 percent of them choked.
GNEEZY: Actually, we were a bit surprised by this experiment because we included tasks in which we expected that effort will increase performance.
But if you think about it, you can see why the researchers maybe shouldn’t have been so surprised. In these experiments, “increased effort” isn’t simply a matter of putting in more time, the way you might with an assignment at work or a project at school. It was trying to execute the same task with and without pressure. So Gneezy and his colleagues wanted to learn more about what sort of tasks make us succumb to pressure. They ran some more experiments at M.I.T., using students as their research subjects. Some experiments involved simple, manual tasks — like punching alternating keyboard keys as fast as possible:
GNEEZY: It’s really something that if you do it for long enough it’s boring, so if I’ll pay you more, you’ll try maybe harder, and we believe that more effort will actually increase your performance.
Other tasks were more cognitive — like adding numbers in matrices.
GNEEZY: When you think about cognitive tasks, you probably reach your optimal behavior, your best, very fast. And now if I’m really making it high incentives, you might actually start being distracted.
Once again, there were low- and high-incentive versions of each task. Since a dollar doesn’t go as far in Massachusetts as it does in India, the rewards here were: up to $30 for the low-incentive experiments and up to $300 for the high.
GNEEZY: So, what we found is that for the key-pressing task, when you increase the incentives from up to $30 to up to $300, they switch from about 40 percent succeeding to 80 percent succeeding. On the other end, when you have to add up numbers, the more cognitive one, we see a sharp decrease from 65 percent to 40 percent. So when you actually have to put some cognitive effort into this, getting the incentives to be ridiculously high could actually be a bad idea.
This would seem to be pretty good evidence that when activities involve some thinking, we’re more susceptible to choking. Or, as you’ve probably heard from a lot of people over the years — coaches and teachers and counselors of all sorts — you are capable of doing some amazing things if you can only get your brain out of the way. But that’s obviously harder than it sounds. So how can you do that? How can you prepare yourself to not crumble under the very circumstances that matter most?
Steve JARDING: The choke is an amazing thing in politics, because it really does destroy careers.
Steve Jarding teaches political communication at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He coaches students how to perform well in high-stakes public forums — like a presidential debate.
JARDING: We saw with Rick Perry, and we always tell people in a debate, an interview, don’t say, “Here’s five things I would do,” or, “Here’s seven things that I would do,” because you put too much pressure on the brain. The minute you say it, literally, the second those words leave your mouth, you’re thinking, “Oh my god, what in the hell are the five?” And in that debate, if you remember, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, one of the front-runners for his party, stands up in the debate, says:
Rick PERRY: It’s three agencies of government when I get there that are gone. Commerce, Education, and the uhhhh… What’s the third one there, let’s see… The third one I can’t. Sorry. Oops.
JARDING: And he’d have been better off, after he couldn’t remember the third, to say, “Well, listen, there’s scores of agencies I would cut. So whether there’s three or 13, you know me, I’m going to go in, I’m going to take a knife to that damn budget, because it’s too over-bloated.” He probably saves his career.
The third agency Perry wanted to cut, he later said, was the Department of Energy. In the kind of twist that can happen only in Washington, Rick Perry now runs the Department of Energy. So, um … yeah. Uri Gneezy at U.C.-San Diego says that in some instances, choking now can lead to more success later.
GNEEZY: So, actually, if I choke once, the penalty could be so high, I would feel so bad about myself that maybe in the future I’ll be much more prepared, which might actually help in performing under pressure.
ERICSSON: You need to prepare for the complexities of the situations that you are going to encounter in the real world.
Anders Ericsson again:
ERICSSON: So if they made a mistake the first time, now this second time, they can avoid that same mistake.
DUBNER: What you’re describing to me sounds an awful lot like deliberate practice, then, yes?
ERICSSON: Well, I think you’re completely right, because that’s exactly what we’re hoping, is to take the real-world situation and then actually find some version of it that you would have more control over, so you can actually practice and get immediate feedback, make revisions, and then apply that same acquired skill in the real-world situation.
BEILOCK: How do we get people to focus on aspects of their performance that are going to be beneficial for success, especially in those situations that are most problematic?
Sian Beilock again, going back to her golf experiments.
BEILOCK: So we investigated whether going quicker, for example, might help eliminate poor performance under pressure, or having one key swing thought that encapsulates your entire stroke might be better. And we showed that some of that was successful. And it leads to the opposite idea, that if you really want to mess your buddy up on the back nine, you just say, “Hey that was a great shot. What were you doing with your elbow?”
DUBNER: Great, so you’re helping us make people choke more. But what else can you tell us about — in this domain at least — learning to choke less?
BEILOCK: We also showed that getting used to this type of hyper-attention to detail that sometimes comes with performance can be helpful. So, really inoculating yourself against the high-pressure situations. You see this with students who practice taking timed tests. You see this with military pilots, and firefighters, and people who practice under some of the types of conditions they’re going to perform under. And you even see this if you walk by a college football stadium Friday afternoon — the music blaring, getting the players used to what it’s going to feel like in that big stadium. And this is true in really big important situations, but it’s also true in those little things we do every day. So, if you’re going to give a toast at a wedding, practicing doing it while people are watching you. And if no one is willing to watch you, videotape yourself — anything that gets you used to the kinds of all eyes on you.
DUBNER: Okay, so put yourself in realistic and stressful practice situations. What else?
BEILOCK: We know, on the athletic field, invoking ways to take your mind off the step-by-step of what you’re doing in the moment, especially on those easier performances. So whether it’s singing a song, or thinking about your pinky toe, or thinking about where you want the ball to land rather than how it’s going to get there.
DUBNER: So, it sounds like if you would summarize all of those activities under one umbrella, it might be like distracting your mind or streamlining it. How do you think about that?
BEILOCK: I’d say controlling what you’re focusing on.
DUBNER: Okay, so controlling what you’re focusing on; realistic practice situations; what else?
BEILOCK: Rethinking how you’re feeling. So, we know that when people remind themselves that sweaty palms and beating heart aren’t a sign they’re going to fail, but a sign that they’re awake and ready to go, and their body is shunting important nutrients to their mind, that can be really effective.
DUBNER: Now, is that a charade, or is that real? I mean, if my palms are sweaty, isn’t that an indication that I am anxious, and that if I just tell myself, “Well it’s not really anxiety, it’s really my body shunting nutrients,” Is that a self-lie that I profit from, or is that realistically a counter-truth?
BEILOCK: First of all I will just say that I like placebo effects, and I have no problem with that. But I think it’s a real truth, because if your heart wasn’t beating, to some extent, you’d be dead, right? And those sweaty palms can be an indication that you’re alert, and aroused, and ready to go. And arousal doesn’t have to be a bad thing, right? It’s bad when we start thinking it’s bad, and then we just start changing our performance.
DUBNER: I love how your counterfactual is always, “Or, you could be dead.” So that is a very useful. I mean, that’s inspiring. Like, I don’t want that.
BEILOCK: Yeah. It’s a good opposition.
DUBNER: It’s a great opposition, yeah. No, I’m serious, I totally like it. Because another piece of advice I’ve always heard is like, “Envision the worst outcome, right, and then think about how this will not be anywhere near as bad as that.” Like if I’m about to hit a high-stakes golf shot, I think, “Well what if instead, like, the club head comes off the club in the backswing and kills my friend?”
BEILOCK: Yeah, that’s way worse!
DUBNER: That’s way worse! So anything from there is like gravy.
BEILOCK: Yeah, and we’ve actually shown that getting people to just jot down their thoughts and worries can be beneficial, just sort of downloading them from mind when they feel stressed out. And one of the things that that does is get you to realize maybe it’s not such a big deal, right? What you’re doing is not as big of a deal as your friend getting hit with the club and dying.
DUBNER: Again, always comes back to dying. What about other means of directing the mind, whether meditation, perhaps?
BEILOCK: There’s lots of research showing that meditative practices can help change how you focus, and your ability to focus on what you want, and get rid of what you don’t. That’s true with visualizing positive performance outcomes ahead of time, and really focusing on why you should succeed. What are the factors that you’ve practiced well? You’ve got this. You’ve had situations like this in the past and they’ve gone really well.
But then there are situations that you haven’t had in the past. Situations that are way bigger, way more pressurized, than anything you could have prepared for …
CHAMBLEE: On the eve of that championship, Jean Van de Velde was ranked 152nd in the world, and people that are 152nd in the world don’t win major championships.
Brandel Chamblee again, talking about the unlikely but apparently inevitable British Open victory of Jean van de Velde.
ALLISS: The golfing gods are with him. Some golfing god is with the young man at this moment, and it’ll be interesting again to see what he does now.
Remember, Van de Velde’s name had already been engraved on the trophy. All he had to do was score a double-bogey six or better on the par-4 18th hole at Carnoustie.
CHAMBLEE: But it was a devastatingly hard hole, no question about it. There is O.B. to the left, a burn down the right, a bunker out there to the right.
“O.B.” is “out of bounds.” A burn is a Scottish term for a creek.
CHAMBLEE: What made this so unbelievable to watch is that it was a combination of what looked to be good breaks that were actually horrible breaks.
Rather than playing his tee shot safe with an iron, Van de Velde stuck with what he’d done all week and he hit driver. He pushed his drive way, way right.
ALLISS: Oh, you lucky little rascal. He’s pushed that away and missed the water, he’s almost, well he’s right in front of the 17th tee.
CHAMBLEE: That’s a great break. If it had gone in the burn, he would have done the math and thought, “Can’t go for it. There’s no way I can go for this, because I can lay up three, hit on four, two-putt six. I’m an Open champion.” So now he pulls a two iron out, so he’s going to be safe going to the right.
ALLISS: Well, I don’t believe this. Well. What is going on here?
CHAMBLEE: So it hits the stands — really hit a pole — then it’s going to go in the burn.
ALLIS: Let’s have a look where he is. He’s still short of the burn, I think really if anybody needs an advisor, he does at this moment.
CHAMBLEE: But it doesn’t go in the burn, it hits the bricks — the rocks — and it bounces over the burn. Great break.
DUBNER: Lying just two in the hay. Right? So not so bad.
CHAMBLEE: Just two, and he’s 30 yards away. So, two great breaks. He goes down there with renewed hope. All he’s got to do is get this wedge out. But again, this is where I would imagine the real choking started, because now, he’s in a really difficult situation. And that’s where he hit a shot that was really just hard to describe. I mean, it’s like he stopped swinging halfway down.
ALLISS: What are you doing? What on earth are you doing? Would somebody kindly go and stop him. Give him a large brandy and mop him down.
CHAMBLEE: And the ball went right in the burn. And then it became surreal, and he thinks he can play it.
ALLISS: He’s gone gaga, because this is quite — I’ve never seen anything like it before, and to attempt to hit the ball out of there is pure madness.
CHAMBLEE: So here he is, pants up, and he decides he can’t play it. So now he gets to go back and drop it.
DUBNER: First good decision he’s made on the hole, maybe.
CHAMBLEE: That’s right. But the lie forced him to make a good decision. And here’s how you get disasters. It’s never just one thing — it’s always a confluence of two or three or four things that were almost unprecedented. So now he drops the ball, taking the penalty shot. So he’s — he’s three in, four out, hitting five. Five is in the bunker.
ALLISS: He hasn’t hit it hard enough. He played a similar shot to the one he plopped into the burn.
CHAMBLEE: Now he’s got an easy bunker shot. Bunker shots are not difficult for professional golfers. He gets it out to six feet. Now, here’s the thing to remember, is that he makes that putt —
ALLISS: Please give him one good putt. Please. Well, if you believe it.
CHAMBLEE: — and I am almost certain that when he made that putt, he thought he had won.
DUBNER: Oh, that’s why he gives the fist pump. Cause he looked ecstatic, yeah?
CHAMBLEE: I think he thought he had won, because I think in the confusion, he lost count. I’ve done it before. He lost count. Because he reacted as if he had won the championship.
DUBNER: And then he looks around, like, “Why is everybody not cheering, crazily, for me?”
CHAMBLEE: That’s right. That’s right.
ALLIS: His golfing brain stopped about 10 minutes ago, I think.
But Van de Velde hadn’t won. He made a triple-bogey seven, which put him in a three-man playoff for the Open Championship. He lost the playoff, to Paul Lawrie. Jean van de Velde never did win a major championship. We called up Van de Velde ourselves recently to check in with him.
Jean VAN DE VELDE: Yes, Stephen, I can hear you. Hello.
Unfortunately, the connection was very poor, so the tape isn’t really worth playing. You can read the transcript here if you’d like. Anyway, we had a nice chat about his family, his continuing involvement with golf — Van de Velde was instrumental in bringing the Ryder Cup to France this fall — and, of course, that terrible 18th hole at Carnoustie in 1999. I asked if it was difficult to talk about it. “It’s never been difficult,” he said. “Just after not winning the Open, it was painful … but you’re a professional athlete.” I asked what it felt like, standing on the 72nd tee with a three-shot lead. “I stood there pretty confident, to be honest,” he said. “I wasn’t overly emotional, or emotional at all. … My nerves were holding pretty okay.” I asked Van de Velde if during the long and difficult adventure on the 18th hole, he had indeed lost track of his score and the lead. Definitely not, he said. Lying five in the bunker, he told me, “I knew that I needed to hole it to win the tournament.” Then I asked him this:
DUBNER: You became famous for not having won the Open. Your 72nd hole has been called the worst choke in golfing history. Do you think that’s true or fair?
VAN DE VELDE: I think we need to ask the definition of choke.
“I think I had two days to choke,” he said. “So a choke? You know, I wouldn’t call that a choke, without a doubt. I would probably use a different word, but certainly not that one.” Earlier I’d asked Brandel Chamblee how Van de Velde had handled the meltdown.
CHAMBLEE: His remarks afterwards were as measured and respectful and appropriate and magnanimous as anybody I’ve ever heard that had gone through something so traumatic. And I gained a great deal of respect for him, immediately.
A lot of other people gained respect for him too. When I asked Van de Velde himself how that one hole changed his life, he said: “You know … it’s very easy to win with grace; it’s a lot harder to lose with it. And without patronizing anybody or blowing my own trumpet, I would say that … the way that I see life, and the way that I’ve accepted what happened … I believe that’s what people like…
VAN DE VELDE: It’s in my nature to see it the way that I see it and that’s the end of that.
I wish Jean Van de Velde were still playing competitive golf only so I could root for him to win. Every week. I agree that losing with grace is not easy; and I agree he accomplished that. And, as Brandel Chamblee points out, the loss did come with some consolation points:
CHAMBLEE: Think about this, now: that adage that nobody remembers who finished second. Well, in this particular instance, hardly anybody remembers who won.
Again, you can read the transcript of the Jean Van de Velde interview here. We’ve also posted, on Stitcher Premium, a bonus episode — our full interview with Brandel Chamblee. Use the promo code “FREAKONOMICS” to get one month of Stitcher Premium free.
Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Harry Huggins. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rosalsky, Greg Rippin, and Andy Meisenheimer. The music you hear throughout the episode was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Jeremy Abbott, U.S. Olympic figure skater.
- Sian Beilock, cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College at Columbia University.
- Brandel Chamblee, Golf Channel analyst and former P.G.A. Tour player.
- Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University.
- Uri Gneezy, economist at the University of California, San Diego.
- Steve Jarding, professor of political communication at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
- Alex Krumer, economist at the University of St. Gallen.
- Jean Van de Velde, former P.G.A. Tour player.
- “Choking Under Pressure in Front of a Supportive Audience: Evidence from Professional Biathlon,” by Alex Krumer and Ken Harb-Wu (University of St. Gallen, November 2017).
- “Large Stakes and Big Mistakes,” by Dan Ariely, Uri Gneezy, George Loewenstein, and Nina Mazar (Review of Economic Studies, July 2008).
- Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, by Sian Beilock (2011).
- “Cognitive Mediation of Putting: Use of a Think-Aloud Measure and Implications for Studies of Golf-Putting in the Laboratory,” by Güler Arsal, David Eccles, and Anders Ericsson (Psychology of Sport and Exercise, November 2016).
- “How to Become Great at Just About Anything,” Freakonomics Radio (April 27, 2016).
- Full transcript of Stephen J. Dubner’s interview with Jean Van de Velde.
- Listen to the full interview with Brandel Chamblee on Stitcher Premium. Use the code “FREAKONOMICS” to get one month free.