Don’t Choke!

Posted 02.23.2009

One of my favorite leadership thinkers is a guy who writes about golf for the Wall Street Journal.  This weekend, John Paul Newport wrote about what frequently happens when players are under pressure.  They choke. 

Maybe you’ve seen it happen on a Sunday afternoon.  The player with the insurmountable lead coming down the 18th fairway somehow manages to throw it all away.  If you haven’t, check out this You Tube clip of French golfer Jean Van de Velde giving away 6 strokes on the last hole of the British Open.  A choke so epic that the move is often now referred to as “pulling a Van de Velde.”

So, what’s the leadership lesson in all of this?  Newport cites some interesting research by University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock.  The professor views professional golf as the perfect laboratory for watching high performers under pressure (sound like anyone you resemble?).   In research last year, she studied the impact of time on novice and skilled putters.   The rookies putted better when they had plenty of time to think about what they wanted to do.  On the other hand, the more time the pros had, the worse they putted.  In other words, when they had time to think about it, they choked.

The lesson from the research?  “Under pressure, the goal should be to disengage the conscious mind as much as possible,” writes Newport.  So how do you do this when you find yourself in situations you haven’t been in before and still have to perform?  The answer is to spend time ahead of time in practice that simulates the likely conditions.  

Obamaspeech That’s good advice for leaders who have to perform when the stakes are high.  It certainly works for President Obama. It’s well documented that when he has to deliver a major speech, he practices extensively ahead of time.  When he actually steps up to the stage, he’s been through it before and he’s able to let us unconscious competence (his unconscious mind) take over. (See this previous post for more on that.)

His Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner?  Not so much.  Geithner was widely and deservedly panned a couple of weeks ago for the thoroughly unconvincing way he briefed the press on round two of the TARP.  He looked like a deer in the headlights in that speech and you could almost hear the internal dialogue in his head saying, “You’re bombing Tim.  You don’t know where you’re going with this.”  He choked and the Dow dropped 400 points.  My guess is some practice sessions would have helped a lot.