By Yvonne Milosevic
Choking under pressure—it happens to the best of us. We tank an interview and don’t get the job. We freeze while giving an important presentation. Or blank during a critical exam. And choking at a crucial moment of the game? That’s an athlete’s worst nightmare. To be clear, choking has nothing to do with having an off-day, performance-wise. When you choke, you perform much worse than your skill level indicates. Or, worse than you have in the past because you now find the situation stressful, cognitive scientist Sian Beilock tells New Scientist.
Beilock is the president of Barnard College and author of two books — Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To; and How the Body Knows Its Mind: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel.
You’re too “in your head”
The prefrontal cortex is the epicenter of our cognitive horsepower, Beilock explains. Typically, we’re not paying attention to all of the little steps that make up everyday tasks.
“But in times of intense stress, like a playoff game, major presentation, or a job interview, your prefrontal cortex can go into overdrive,” Beilock writes in Harvard Business Review. “When the pressure is on, we often start focusing on the step-by-step details of our performance to try and ensure an optimal outcome and, as a result, we disrupt what would have otherwise been fluid and natural.”
This pressure leads to panic. We start overthinking, and suddenly, we face “paralysis by analysis.” Fortunately, Beilock has come up with several science-backed strategies to help us avoid choking under pressure. Here are three of them.
First, accept that no amount of distraction will help if you haven’t adequately prepped for whatever high-stress situation in which you’ll soon find yourself. This trick assumes you have amply rehearsed, practiced, studied, etc., and in optimal conditions, would perform like a rock star.
Five minutes before the Big Event, resist the urge to review every detail of what you’re about to do, Beilock advises. Instead, take a few moments to focus on something else. Play a game on your phone. Scroll through Instagram. Plan your menu for dinner that night. It doesn’t matter how you distract yourself. The point is to refocus your cognitive horsepower away from the thing you’re about to do.
By occupying your prefrontal cortex beforehand with unrelated activities, Beilock explains, you’re less likely to overthink in the moment and more likely to communicate or perform effectively.
Jot down worries
Researchers have found that writing down your concerns before a stressful event helps to download them from your mind—making them less likely to pop up in the moment, Beilock explains in her Ted Talk on choking under pressure.
Dr. Srini Pillay of Harvard Medical School has come to the same conclusion. Expressive writing—where you write about your deepest thoughts and feelings—helps anxious people perform better on tests. “We’re not sure exactly why this is, but one leading theory is that writing about test anxiety ‘offloads’ worrisome thoughts, thereby freeing up mental resources to concentrate on the test,” Pillay explains.
Practice, practice, practice
As we hinted above, preparation is essential to nailing it—and to avoid choking under pressure. Say you have a job interview for a position you really want. Or need to give a speech in front of your entire company. Obviously, winging it isn’t an option.
So learn your resume backward and forwards. Recruit a friend to conduct a mock interview with you. Practice giving your speech to colleagues or friends. For interviews or public speaking, it helps to record yourself in the process so you can suss out any verbal or physical tics that might distract your audience.
If you’re studying for an important test, try to replicate the testing environment you’ll encounter on the actual day. Close the book, practice retrieving the answer from memory under timed situations, Beilock advises. The goal: make whatever the task is feel as fluid and natural as possible—like you’re on autopilot.
To quote former pro basketball player Tim Duncan, “When you have to stop and think, that’s when you mess up.”
But what if you still choke?
“It’s not the end of the world,” Beilock reminds us. “You might be disappointed and even embarrassed, but like most things in life, it’s a learning experience. Take the opportunity to learn how to better handle the stress next time.”