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How to Never Choke Again

Three things happen immediately after you mentally freeze, choke, and wreck a motorcycle:
  1. You take a quick inventory and make sure all body parts are intact,
  2. You surreptitiously glance around to see if anyone was watching, and
  3. You start thinking of excuses you'll give for why you wrecked.
Well-worn excuse chestnuts include:
  • "A car cut me off."
  • "I swerved to avoid a (cat/dog/deer/cow, depending on the locality) in the road."
  • And the ever popular, "I hit a patch of gravel."
The first time I wrecked a motorcycle, none of the above applied. What happened? Simple: I had only been riding for a couple months and I choked. I freaked out. I froze. I -- shoot, pick any embarrassing verb and it applies. I was going way too fast up a twisty mountain road and came on a hairpin turn, mentally froze, hit the brakes but did nothing else, and ran off the road into the side of the mountain. (Yes, pretty stupid, but if you read this post you know I eventually learned to be smarter, if not more clever.)

What happened? I didn't choke because I lacked courage. In those days my bravery needle shot past "Bold" and "Reckless" to peg out at "Could you conceivably be more of an idiot?" I choked because I had not done the one thing that can ensure you never choke again:

Turn the abnormal into the normal and the unusual into usual.
No, I didn't just go all Zen on you. Here's why.

We don't choke because we lack courage. We don't choke because we lack an innate coolness under fire or because we're flawed and made of softer stuff.

We choke when we face an unusual, uncomfortable, confrontational, or scary situation, we don't know what to do, and we freeze:

  • We shrink backwards instead of stepping forward to seize an opportunity.
  • We say the wrong thing in a meeting.
  • We do what we've always done in a confrontation instead of what we know we should do.
  • We run off the road into the side of a mountain and break both wrists. (Okay, maybe that's just me.)
In the midst of choking you experience fear, but fear is just a symptom. The fear you feel doesn't cause you to choke; you choke because you don't know what to do: You haven't turned "Oh no!" into "Okay, been there, done that, here's what I'll do."

Never choking again isn't based on developing greater courage or composure. Never choking again starts from the opposite end: When you know what to do and have done something similar before, courage becomes automatic. Composure is a given. Coolness under fire is natural.

Bravery is like a Band-Aid for choking. Throw out the Band-Aids to cure the real problem.

CLICK to learn how to never choke again

The key to not choking is to gain experience. But not just any experience -- the kind of experience that builds confidence. To start, we'll use my motorcycle example, but keep in mind you can apply the following process to almost any skill or situation.
  1. Build the basic skill. I could ride a motorcycle, but my skills were rudimentary. So I set out to systematically improve my ability to go fast in turns. I rode the same roads, over and over, going a little faster as I gained skill and confidence.
  2. Rework the basic skill. But I still wasn't particularly fast and had developed habits that were more about comfort than skill. For example, I didn't "like" to slide the back tire on exit, so I tended to brake earlier on entry so I could smoothly dial in throttle. Comfort isn't performance, so I forced myself to work on late braking and cracking the throttle to purposely kick the rear tire loose. Over time I got really good at sliding both ends, even though initially I was anything but comfortable.
  3. Practice for "What if?" I approached the upper limit of basic skill but in a highly controlled setting. If the unexpected occurred I'd still be likely to choke: What if a car did move into my lane? What if a dog did run across the road? What if there actually was gravel? I created a bunch of "What if?" scenarios and practiced them. (Without the actual dog, of course.) I worked on changing my line mid-turn. I worked on braking hard while still leaning way over. I picked specific spots on the road and tried to hit them, pretending I only had inches available to avoid a car. Why? Because that helped me....
  4. Visualize. Lots of people get visualization wrong. Visualizing what you will do is helpful -- but only if you've done it before. (Visualizing the perfect golf swing only helps when you've swung the club well before.) Visualizing what I had done and focusing on getting every detail right helped me build a mental skill framework -- and build confidence. And then I took visualization a step farther to...
  5. Create a mental solution pegboard. Responding quickly is a skill that can be developed. (That's why military personnel, police, fire fighters, etc. train relentlessly.) Thinking on your feet is easy when you've already done the thinking, so I created a mental pegboard with little solution bags hanging from it. One bag held "car stopped in road on blind turn." Another bag held "gravel strewn across road." Another held "car swerves in your lane and the road has no shoulder and the road is wet." The more bags I filled with solutions, the more I could practice, the more I could visualize, the better prepared I was to respond quickly -- and the less likely I was to choke.
  6. Benefit from close calls. It's impossible to predict every possible outcome. Close calls are learning opportunities. Figure out what you'll do next time, practice, then add that solution to your mental pegboard.
Again, the key is not developing bravery or mental toughness. The key is developing skills and experience. Skills and experience naturally develop bravery and mental toughness.

Don't think this approach can be applied to business? You're wrong.

CLICK to learn how to never choke again in business

Let's apply the approach to a situation where people often choke: Public speaking. We'll assume you're not only scared of formal public speaking but also hesitate to speak up in meetings or in informal group settings, and when called upon to speak you sometimes feel you choke.
  1. Build the basic skill. If being asked a question during a meeting instantly makes you anxious, your problem isn't a fear of public speaking. Your problem is you don't know what to say -- so you freeze. Start by never walking into a meeting unprepared. You know the meeting agenda, so always prepare for possible discussions. Then think about two or three ways you can constructively contribute, take the plunge, and jump in. When you're prepared and confident about what you want to say the act of speaking is be a lot easier. If it helps, write down what you want to say, and practice. Then make it a point to contribute at every meeting. In time speaking up will get easier.
  2. Rework the basic skill. But don't stop there. Ask to lead a meeting. Ask to present an idea. Ask people if they have questions about a project or task. Go to a Toastmasters meeting and speak. Step outside your comfort zone; see comfort as a base to build on, never as an end result.
  3. Practice for "What if?" Once you build decent speaking skills, the next step is to eliminate unexpected reasons that could cause you to choke. What if your PowerPoint presentation locks up? Figure out what you'll do. What if you get questions you can't answer? Think about how you will respond. What if your 45-minute presentation is suddenly cut to 10 minutes? Think about how you'll shorten it to ensure your main points are delivered. Then...
  4. Visualize. You may never be faced with a power outage during a presentation, much less practice an outage, but you can think about what you would do. And you can imagine someone tries to hijack your meeting, and mentally prepare how you'll respond. And as you visualize...
  5. Create a mental solution pegboard. What will you do if you present an idea and it bombs? What will you do if an employee challenges you in front of others? What happens if you forget your place during a presentation? Stick the answers in a mental solution bag and reach for the solution when the no-longer-unexpected happens. While everyone will assume you thought quickly on your feet, you'll know preparation was the key.
  6. Benefit from close calls. If an employee almost touches on a sensitive subject, especially one you aren't ready to address during a group meeting, don't just walk away thinking, "Wow, am I glad I didn't have to deal with that." What would you have done? What would the best response have been? Think through your options, mentally rehearse, and create a new solution bag for your peg board. If something almost happens this time... guaranteed it will happen someday. Be ready.
You can apply this approach to almost any situation, business or personal: Giving feedback, pitching investors, disciplining employees, dealing with confrontation, playing a sport, starting and building relationships.... doesn't matter. To avoid choking you don't have to be brave. You just need to take a systematic approach to developing skills and gaining confidence.

When you do, bravery, composure, and coolness under fire will be automatic.


photo courtesy flickr user tonystl, CC 2.0
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