Our Town: Choking at the U.S. Open

Why do so many people seem to fear their onw success?

It’s amazing what you can learn about life by watching a golf tournament. It may be because golf is a slow-moving game played on such a large canvas and that the margin for error is miniscule.
Anyone who tuned into this week’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines will have seen the unheard of 46-year-old journeyman golfer by the name of Richard Bland, who was leading this pressure-packed tournament after two rounds. The ever so conscientious television producers at NBC, the network covering this year’s Open, tracked down Richard Bland’s golf coach to discuss his student. The coach, Tim Barter of Great Britain, repeatedly referred to Bland’s tendency to leave all his putts short of the hole. He said that Bland is a superb ball striker but somehow seems to have a block about reaching the hole when putting. And anyone who knows anything about golf knows that you “drive for show but you putt for dough.”
Putting is the sine qua non of golf and it thus goes without saying that if you want to make putts, you have to get the ball to the hole. That, my friend, is simple physics. Coach Barter referred to the putting guru Dave Peltz’s belief that if you are not putting the ball firmly enough, it tends to bounce about quite a bit when it nears the hole.
But, alas, analytics and golfing swing mechanics will only take you so far. You also may need to get past one’s inner and largely unconscious fears, anxiety and dread in order to get the ball to find its home at the bottom of the cup.
Now lest you think that golfers are the only ones who are subject to unconscious fears of winning, let me expand upon our thesis. Nearly every human alive avoids success, happiness and joy on a daily basis. Evidence of anxiety or choking is observed when someone fails to go in a direction that will help their life. A job hunter will show up late for a key appointment. A salesman will fail to make a key phone call on a hot lead or someone will mysteriously come down with a serious cold just before a vacation. All these indicate the fear of success.
Most try to describe this as bad luck or if you happen to be a little bit more introspective will say it’s a fear of failure. “Oh, if I make that crucial call and get a rejection, it will be too painful and thus let’s avoid the whole thing.” Yes, accidents do happen and yes, fear of failure is a trait that many suffer with. But choking on or off the course also suggests that there is something more deeply unconscious at play. And this may be where fear of success comes in.
It is strange that the only golfer I have heard talk at all about fear of success is Jack Nicklaus, who won 18 majors, a feat that will probably never happen again. He understood that most in the field will back up in the end of a major out of a fear of winning. He felt that they all believed they were underserving of the win. Nicklaus was on to something.
There is one person, however, who introduced this concept and frequently talked about the fear of winning. He never played the game of golf because he was so busy treating patients. His name was Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. I am certain you’ve heard of one of his more famous concepts, castration anxiety, or the “Oedipus Complex.” This little ditty, like almost all of his other brilliant findings, is never mentioned in the field of sport psychology where, in fact, it ought to be one of its central tenets. All it means is that as little boys grow up and reach the age of about 5, they fall in love with Mommy and fear that Daddy may find out, get angry and kill the lustful little boy. You will be pleased to note that Freud did not neglect little girls in the formulation, and he called it the “Electra Complex,” which simply means that about the same age, little girls fall in love with Daddy and fear that Mommy may find out and do serious harm to them. Thus, they too inherit fear of getting what they really want. This fear is laid down in the unconscious and emerges in full force later in life when you are about to achieve your dreams.
Whether you’re a man or a woman, it is likely that you are unconsciously avoiding success due to these nasty little fears that have their roots in childhood.
So do not have too much pity on poor Richard Bland or his bewildered coach Barter. If you watched closely on TV, you will have seen that actually most of the players backed off the lead on Sunday and were probably suffering with the same dread of getting axed if they had the nerve to reach for that trophy.
And furthermore, don’t lose too much sleep over these athletes. Instead ask yourself how and why you have been avoiding, obtaining and grasping onto your own particular version of joy in life. The answer to why you avoid happiness will probably stem from what happened between you and Mom and Dad way back when you were 5 years old.
But, of course, no one really believes in Freud, do they? All those arcane and odd-sounding theories are nothing but silly talk. However, the grim truth is that no one has come close to producing a theory that is more effective. Instead we hear that only if Mr. Bland would have listened a little more closely to Tim Barter and Dave Peltz and hit the ball a little harder than voila, he would have been smiling and holding the U.S. Open trophy in his arms. But instead, he will be reaching for a drink and doing his best to forget about what just happened. Until it happens again next week. It’s not his putter and it’s not for lack of will. Athletes back off of victory largely due to repressed childhood fears that are still swimming around inside their minds.

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