Don't Choke! Secrets for Performing Under Pressure

Last Updated Sep 27, 2010 7:20 PM EDT

You palms sweat. Your pulse races. Your throat gets dry. You're standing in front of a room full of people who can make or break your career, and you're about to choke. For most people this sounds like the set-up for a terrible anxiety dream, but for University of Chicago psychology professor Sian Beilock, high-pressure performance isn't the raw material for nightmares but for brain science.

Specializing in what goes on in our brains and bodies during high-stakes performances, Beilock has spent her career learning something the anxious among us would love to know: why do we choke under pressure and how can we prevent it? After posting a bit about her new book on the topic, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, Entry-Level Rebel got in touch to ask for more tips on how to develop a cool head under stress.

Are there any warning signs that you are about to choke?

There are a variety of brain and body reactions that happen in high-pressure situations, and some of these can be warning signs that our performance is doomed -- especially if we interpret them in a negative way. For example, if you interpret a racing heart as "oh s**t," then your performance may be about to crack. But if you instead interpret the same racing heart as a call to action, you might perform at a high level. And, of course, when the worries start, this is one major sign that a choke is coming.

And if you feel it coming on, can you do anything in the moment to prevent it?
In the book I talk about a number of techniques to "pause the choke" when we find ourselves about to crumble. Some of these techniques are specific to the activity we are doing. If, for example, one is performing a golf putt one has hit thousands of times in the past, slightly speeding up the performance or distracting oneself can actually be a good thing. This is because choking often occurs during these sorts of "automated tasks" when we try to control aspects of performance that are best left outside of conscious awareness. Singing a song to oneself, counting backwards by 3s, or speeding up so you don't have as much time to think about every aspect of what you are doing can be good things. On the other hand, if you are performing an activity that requires a lot of thinking and reasoning -- a lot of cognitive horsepower -- where considering all the details is a good thing (e.g., taking a difficult test in school, reasoning about an on-the-spot question from a business client), then it's important to do things that help quiet the worries and allow you to devote all your cognitive horsepower to what you are doing.

Here are a few tips: First, 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. Second, know what you know. If you have memorized the introduction to your speech or what you are going to say in its entirety, just go with it and try not to think too much about every word. If you didn't memorize it, pause before key transitions to allow yourself time to regroup. Third, remind yourself that you have the background to succeed and that you are in control of the situation. This can be the confidence boost you need to ace your pitch.

Finally, here's one more: write it out. Our 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). It 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.

Your research found that high performers are the most likely to choke. Why is that?
Often the high performers put the most pressure on themselves, but that is not the whole story. High-powered people (those with the most cognitive horsepower) usually rely a lot on the prefrontal cortex, and the working memory housed there, to perform at the top. Under pressure, when worries co-opt these resources, high-powered folks don't have all the brain power they normally have to perform at a high level, and thus they choke.

Are there any other characteristics that make a person more prone to choking?
Being a chronic worrier, being highly self-conscious, and a tendency to have negative outlook on a situation all contribute to choking.

I was fascinated by a study mentioned in Choke which demonstrated that black students' scores on a standardized test rose significantly after the election of President Obama because they were less distracted by worries that they might be stereotyped. How big an effect can this "stereotype threat" have?
These effects are really interesting. It's amazing to think that something as simple as checking off your race or gender before a test could impact your performance, or that seeing Obama -- someone who defies stereotypes about blacks and intelligence -- could change this. The effects are meaningful -- for instance, the work we have done with women and math show that performance can be shifted around 10 to 15 percent on tests just by highlighting gender stereotypes in math.

So if you're a woman going in for an important interview, for example, should you think about powerful and successful women before you leave the house?
Being exposed to women who defy the stereotype helps. But there are other techniques that I talk about in the book that work, too. For instance, we have shown that when women write about their impressive academic qualifications right before a test (rather than dwell on the fact that they are a woman), they do better on a math test. Other work has shown that thinking about all your different self-aspects -- positive ones, especially, maybe you are a mother, a great cook, a good friend -- helps take the emphasis off of your identity only as a woman (where a stereotype about math ability exists). Finally, some of the techniques I mention above (writing about your worries ,for example) can also help.

If a person starting out in a high-stakes career wanted to train themselves to be cool and unflappable under stress, what would you recommend?
A big one is to close the gap between practice and competition. Meaning, practice under stress. This gets you used to the pressure, so the high-stakes situation is not something you fear. Interestingly, this practice doesn't have to mimic the extent of the pressures you will feel in a do-o- 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.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user Nina Mathews Photography, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.