How Not to Choke Under Pressure

Blowing the job-interview answer you had down cold. Missing that eight-inch putt to lose the charity tournament. Letting her leave with those words still in your throat. A choke can alter your life and change how you see yourself in small or pivotal ways.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., president of Barnard College, remembers her biggest choke. She was a gifted soccer player with Olympic aspirations until one game when she was goalkeeping for California State. “I was playing well until I realized the national coach was standing behind me, and then I had one of the worst games of my life,” she recalls. “I was so frustrated, I never recovered. It took me out of soccer at the highest level.”

The experience also nudged her to become one of the leading researchers of the phenomenon at the University of Chicago and inspired her to write How the Body Knows the Mind. Since researchers first began looking at choking in the 1980s, the most commonly accepted culprit has been “thinking too much”—coping with anxiety by obsessing over body movement in an attempt to be flawless. It’s termed “explicit monitoring,” and cognitive and neuroscience have since proved that this tendency does indeed interfere with the brain processes that fluidly glide you through well-learned tasks. “If you’re shuffling down the stairs and I ask you to think about what’s happening with your knee, there’s a good chance you’ll fall on your face,” says Beilock.

In recent years, however, more researchers have begun pointing to another cognitive quirk as a more frequent cause of choking—namely, anxiety and fear of failure, which distract your mind and take critical brain resources (especially working memory) away from the task at hand. It’s thinking too little, in a sense.

Thinking too much and thinking too little both strangle your brain’s ability to tap ingrained motor-control skills. In effect, you revert to a bumbling rookie.

Broadly speaking, both explicit-monitoring chokers and distraction chokers suffer similar brain break-downs. Simplified somewhat, thinking too much and thinking too little both strangle your brain’s ability to tap ingrained motor-control skills. In effect, you revert to a bumbling rookie.

Though noting the differences in these two choking mechanisms may seem like splitting neural hairs, they matter when it comes to potential fixes. Most common anti-choking strategies are designed to intentionally sidetrack explicit-monitor chokers, such as humming or focusing on a neutral object. But these tips can actually be harmful to distraction chokers and make it even harder for them to perform under stress.

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Although different people have different choking vulnerabilities and various triggers, the following strategies tend to work for both types of chokers in adrenaline-soaked moments:

Forget about being clutch

“The idea of clutch performance is a myth,” says performance psychologist Rob Gray, Ph.D., program chair of human systems engineering at Arizona State University. Many guys think they can consciously “get serious” in a stressful situation or marshal their strengths to perform better than usual. It’s false. You can’t raise your game under pressure; the best you can reliably do is deliver your typical performance. If you haven’t rehearsed your pitch until it flows, or practiced a layup enough to make it 19 out of 20 times, expect to be mediocre or worse when it counts. “Great athletes do the same thing under pressure that they doin other situations, not something radically different,” he adds.

Audition with an audience

“Practice under the conditions you’re going to perform in,” says Beilock. This usually means having an audience of people who will be honest and whose opinion you value. This could mean asking a neutral coworker or your attorney brother-in-law to critique your practice pitch. If that’s difficult to re-create, try videoing yourself. “Chokers hate to be watched,” says Denise Hill, Ph.D., a sport and exercise psychologist at Swansea University in Wales. Rehearsing in front of an audience can help inoculate against that fear. The same goes for time pressure. Set a buzzer when practicing any timed task or exam.

Rehearse variation

Monotonously doing drills like sinking free throws invites choking. “In most sports, performance conditions are always changing,” says Gray. “The key is to add variability into practice.” This means scrimmaging, changing angles and pace, performing tasks at different levels of fatigue, asking your test audience to react differently to your pitch, etc. “At the driving range, I’ll pretend I’m playing 9 or 18 holes,” says Paul Sullivan, author of Clutch: Excel Under Pressure. “I’m not just hitting the same shot again and again.”

Develop a preroutine

Whether it’s bouncing the ball three times at the foul line, adjusting your feet in a certain way over a putt, or doing power poses in the mirror, come up with a preroutine. Pair it with trigger words that keep you calm and focused on a task or a positive sensation. (“Loose hands” . . . “Make these three clear points,” and so on.) Feeling out of control is a key contributor to choking, says Hill. Trigger words in practice and games help maintain this sense of calm.

Make a fist

Use your left hand and hold it for 30 seconds. Or squeeze a ball. This activates the right brain hemisphere, which directs visual-spatial processing and, in turn, suppresses the left hemisphere, which governs verbal and analytic processing. German researchers found it prevented choking in soccer players and tae kwon do experts in an experimental setting.

Have “quiet eye”

Focus intensely on the target, or the absolute center of the audience. “Skilled performers keep their eyes still right before they start moving,” says Gray. “For example, good golfers look at the ball longer, and good free-throw shooters look at the rim longer. We call this quiet eye because you’re quieting everything down and focusing on one thing.”

Hum a song (but only if you’re an explicit-monitor choker)

If the fateful act would be insultingly easy—say, sinking a ten-inch putt or knocking in a hanging billiard shot—if only your manhood weren’t riding on it, try humming a song you like as you bead in. Secondary-task distraction is a popular anti-anxiety strategy in sports and is worth a try if you know you’re an explicit monitor and your mind starts over focusing on body control during quiet eye. Most sports chokers are likely in the distraction camp, so their minds are screaming about the horrors of failure, not their pinkie angle. If you’re not certain that you’re an explicit monitor, lasering in on the hole is probably a wiser strategy than hum-ming “Back in Black.”

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