In her book Choke, author Sian Beilock examines the science behind why we choke under pressure. Here, Beilock explains a few of those reasons, and offers a few solutions.
Photo by William Warby.
So, why do we choke under pressure? A lot of the explanation can be boiled down to the fact that, under pressure, the prefrontal cortex (the very front part of our brain that sits over our eyes) stops working the way it should.
This can result in a lack of brain power available for demanding thinking and reasoning tasks (e.g., taking a test, responding to on-the-spot questions to a client) because worries about messing up co-opt these brain resources. However, under pressure, we also often try and control what we are doing in an attempt to ensure success. Too much attention to the details of activities that are best left outside conscious awareness (e.g., in golf, too much attention devoted to how your elbow is bent as you take a 3-foot putt you have holed thousands of times in the past) can disrupt a fluent performance and make you miss the hole.
The good news is that knowing the science behind why we choke gives us the power to wield the right tools to ensure success under stress. In her book Choke, author Sian Beilock provides a toolbox of tips to prevent the dreaded choke, but here are a few to get you started:
Close the Gap Between Practice and Competition
The first is to close the gap between practice and competition. Meaning, practice under stress. This gets you used to the pressure so competition is not something you fear. Also, by understanding when pressure happens, you can create situations that will maximize the stress in your opponents (say if you are on the playing field). Interestingly, this practice doesn’t have to mimic the extent of the pressures you will feel in a do or die situation. Even practicing under mild levels of pressure (e.g., your friends and family watching you) can help you get used to the real pressure when it comes your way.
Second, don’t dwell. Take that past performance and change how you think about it. See your failures as a chance to learn how to perform better in the future. Research conducted with Canadian National swimmers suggests that dwelling on past failures can send the mind and body into a helpless state and, as a result, you are not able to get as motivated for subsequent performances.
Focus on the Outcome
Third, if you are trying to avoid choking in sports—especially when you seem to perform poorly under pressure on tasks that you have mastered (e.g., a 3-foot putt, a simple forehand in tennis, or an easy pass in soccer), try focusing on the outcome, not the mechanics. Focusing on the goal, where the ball will land in the net, helps cue your practiced skills to run off flawlessly. This outcome focus also helps prevent your prefrontal cortex from muddling in the unfolding of your fluent performance where it doesn't belong. In business settings, like interviewing for a job or pitching to a client, think about what you want to say, not what you don't want to say, because when you try not to think or do something, it is often more likely to occur. (Ed. note: Don’t think of an elephant.)
Write It Out
Finally, write it out. Work shows that writing about worries and stressful events in your life can help increase working-memory (a kind of mental scratchpad that allows us to “work” with all the information stuck in consciousness) and may even prevent other parts of your life (spouse, kids, house) from creeping in and distracting you under stress. This writing doesn’t have to be long; 10 minutes before a big event or regularly for 10 minutes a week can help ensure that we make the most of the brain power we have.