Don't Choke! How to Perform Well Under Pressure

October 12, 2010

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Many of us deal with tight deadlines or intimidating projects on a regular basis. The pressure can often be overwhelming. Here are some ways to avoid choking and become a clutch performer.

High expectations for success can lead to disastrous consequences not only on a soccer field or a golf course, but also in the boardroom. Eventually, each of us encounters a situation where the stakes are high and the outcome is crucial, and even top performers can crumble when faced with extreme pressure.

It's tempting to dismiss such failures as simply "nerves." However, according to University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, they are preventable results of information logjams in the brain.

In some cases, individuals can start to worry too much about the effects of an important moment rather than focusing on what needs to be done in the present.

In her new book, Choke, Beilock explains how thinking too much about what you are doing — because you are worried about losing the lead or 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," a press release for the book explains. "Unfortunately, this increased control can backfire, disrupting what was once a fluid, flawless performance."

"Bringing highly practiced routines back into consciousness disrupts them," Beilock writes at Psychology Today.

In a thematically similar new book, Clutch, journalist Paul Sullivan looks at "how overthinking an opportunity can paralyze a person under pressure and cause him to choke just when everyone else thinks he will come through."

Another way the brain can work to sabotage performance is when pressure-filled situations deplete a part of the brain's processing power known as "working memory," which is critical to numerous everyday activities, according to Beilock. Lodged in the prefrontal cortex, working memory is "a sort of mental scratch pad that is temporary storage for information relevant to the task at hand," whether that task is working on a math problem or responding to tough, on-the-spot client questions.

When worries creep in, the working memory that talented people normally use to succeed becomes overburdened. They lose the brainpower necessary to excel. An example of this is the phenomenon of "stereotype threat" — when otherwise talented people don't perform up to their abilities because they are worried about confirming popular stereotypes or cultural myths, such as that "boys and girls naturally perform differently in math or that a person's race determines his or her test performance."

In his book, Sullivan explains right away that there are five traits that help people pull off a "clutch" performance: focus, discipline, adaptability, presence (blocking out everything else), and fear and desire.

In their books, both published last month, Beilock and Sullivan each insists on the importance of facing the truth about one's abilities while avoiding "paralysis through analysis."

"Take a few minutes to write out your fears or how you might have corrected a previous poor performance," TIME's Healthland advises, based on Choke's findings. This approach can serve as catharsis to free up your working memory and enable you to focus on what matters when you need to.

By studying how the brain works when we are doing our best — and when we choke — Beilock has formulated practical ideas about how to overcome performance lapses at critical moments. Here are three of Beilock's tips on how to withstand make-or-break pressure, no matter how nervous you might feel:

  • Meditate. In lab tests, Beilock and her research team gave people with no meditation experience 10 min. of meditation training before they took a high-stakes test. Students with meditation preparation scored 87 (or B+) versus the 82 (or B-) of those without meditation training. This difference in performance occurred despite the fact that all students were of equal ability. As such, Beilock argues, the best strategy is to take a deep breath, clear your mind, then carefully analyze the problem at hand before trying to resolve it.
  • Practice under pressure. Stress can undermine performance in business, where competition for sales, giving high-stakes presentations or even meeting your boss in the elevator are occasions when choking can squander opportunities. Practicing under stress helps people feel comfortable when they find themselves standing in the line of fire, Beilock says. The experience of having dealt with stress makes those situations seem like old hat. The goal is to close the gap between practice and performance.
  • Focus positively on the process. Staying positive is always a good idea. "Think about the journey, not the outcome," Beilock advises, adding that staying positive is always a good idea. "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 or to succeed in other ways when facing life's challenges."

Whether you are finishing a crucial project, interviewing for a job, pitching to investors or giving a wedding toast, managing stress and performing your best will often determine the outcome.

"Being great under pressure is hard work," Sullivan says in his book. "This is part of the reason why we are so impressed by people who seem immune to choking. These people come through in the clutch when others don't."

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Resources

Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To by Sian Beilock Simon & Schuster, September 2010

Clutch: Why Some People Excel under Pressure and Other Don't by Paul Sullivan Publisher: Penguin Group (USA), September 2010

Psychologist Shows Why We "Choke" Under pressure - and How to Avoid it University of Chicago, Sept. 21, 2010

Losing Your Cool Under Pressure by Sian Beilock Psychology Today, Sept. 29, 2010

Working Memory Keeps People on Task by Rick Nauert Psych Central, Aug. 7, 2009

Don't Choke: 5 Tips for Performing Under Pressure by Anita Hamilton TIME: Healthland, Sept. 21, 2010

The Tight Collar: The New Science of Choking Under Pressure by David Dobbs Neuron Culture (Wired), Sept. 27, 2010

What Happens Under Pressure by Philip Delves Broughton The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 27, 2010

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