Perform Under Pressure: How to Keep from Choking

Last Updated Sep 21, 2010 6:51 AM EDT

High-pressure moments are a double-edged sword. For some, the added anxiety drives their performance to new heights. But for others (or even the same person on another day) stress simply shuts down the brain leading to a bungled presentation or a lousy putt on the golf course. Pressure is a fact of life in business, so how can you ensure that it drives you to up your game rather than crash and burn?

University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock has a new book on the topic. Released today, it's entitled Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To and lays out what causes the phenomenon we call choking, while also offering tips on how to prevent it. Beilock explains that often over-analysis can cause the dreaded sweaty palms and blank brain:

Thinking too much about what you are doing, because you are worried about losing the lead... or worrying about failing in general, can lead to "paralysis by analysis." In a nutshell, paralysis by analysis occurs when people try to control every aspect of what they are doing in an attempt to ensure success. Unfortunately, this increased control can backfire, disrupting what was once a fluid, flawless performance.

But there are other cases of choking as well that afflict women, minorities and others who have extra reason to fret about how their performance may be judged.

Pressure-filled situations can deplete a part of the brain's processing power known as working memory, which is critical to many everyday activities.... Working memory is lodged in the prefrontal cortex and is a sort of mental scratch pad that is temporary storage for information relevant to the task at hand, whether that task is doing a math problem at the board or responding to tough, on-the-spot questions from a client. Talented people often have the most working memory, but when worries creep up, the working memory they normally use to succeed becomes overburdened. People lose the brain power necessary to excel.

One example is the phenomenon of "stereotype threat." This is when otherwise talented people don't perform up to their abilities because they are worried about confirming popular cultural myths that contend, for instance, that boys and girls naturally perform differently in math or that a person's race determines his or her test performance.

So whether "analysis paralysis" or "stereotype threat" or both is behind your tendency to seize up under pressure, what can you do to loosen your gunked up brain and be at your best? Beilock offers surprisingly simple prescriptions -- meditation, practice under pressure and a positive focus on the process rather than the outcome -- but the improvement in outcome from these interventions can be significant. "Beilock and her research team gave people with no meditation experience 10 minutes of meditation training before they took a high-stakes test. Students with meditation preparation scored 87, or B+, versus the 82 or B- score of those without meditation training," despite the students being of equal ability.

(Image courtesy of Flickr user Victor Jeg, 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.