Coping or Choking?

Choking Under Pressure

What to Do About Choking

Here’s some other strategies from researchers that help deal with the choking issue:

  • Channel your inner Stuart Smalley. Stuart Smalley was a fictional character created by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live. Stuart was famous for his daily affirmations, most notably, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” As it turns out, taking a few minutes to write about your strengths and interests can promote feelings of self-worth, which boosts both confidence and performance. Similarly, identifying all of the things that go into make you who you are can give you some perspective — you are more than just one test score.
  • Do a brain spill. Dr. Beilock suggests writing for 10 minutes about what your biggest worries are with your upcoming presentation or performance. When your worries are on the table your brain can switch gears, which reduces the cognitive pressure and may lead to improved working memory.
  • Get control of your breathing. Did you know that we typically use only 10–30% of our lung capacity? Stress and the other strong emotions you might experience leading up to your performance deplete that capacity even further.
  • Choke your choke. If you are stuck trying to solve a challenging problem or focused on any task that requires working memory, walk away for a few minutes. This pause is called the incubation period and helps your brain switch channels and find an alternative perspective.
  • Think of the stress as a challenge. When you have a physiological response to stress, try to interpret that response as a challenge and not a threat. For example, if your heart is racing, think of it as a sign that your body is getting ready to help you do well and focus versus thinking of it as a sign that you’re going crazy and aren’t prepared.
  • Practice under pressure. While you likely can’t replicate the exact stress or pressure you might feel on the day of your performance, even practicing under mild levels of stress can prevent you from choking. If you’re preparing for a big presentation and won’t be able to use your notes, time yourself in advance and make sure you do a few practice runs without your notes.
  • Distract yourself a bit. For physical tasks, such as sports competitions, many people end up thinking too hard about what they’re doing, which can throw them off. Beilock has shown that experienced golfers actually do worse when encouraged to focus on the skill at hand. So she has suggested self-distraction — like, for example, focusing on a golf ball’s dimples or singing a song.
  • Don’t dilly-dally. Beilock has demonstrated that doing a task relatively quickly seems to help. For example, in one study she found that experienced golfers putted better when instructed to putt quickly while still being accurate. (Though the opposite was true with novices.) So if you’re doing something you know how to do really well, taking extra time could make you more susceptible to choking.
  • Express your emotions before you start. Beilock’s research group has also shown that writing about one’s feelings before a test can help. In a study published in Science in 2011, they explored this by having college students take a very difficult math exam. (Sara Reardon has a good summary for Science.) To boost the pressure, the researchers put some cash on the line and videotaped the subjects, telling them the tape would be shown to their teachers and friends.
  • Abandon perfectionism. You can’t be perfect every time in everything you do. Think both about percentages and doing the best you can. Percentages means doing the task a whole bunch of times, and some of the results will be great, and some not. But if you only do the task a few times, the failures loom much larger in your mind. As hockey legend Wayne Gretsky once said “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Doing the best you can at the time is a better way of measuring your performance rather than expecting 100% or perfection every time, because it takes the psychological pressure off, which in turn helps your performance.



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Ray Williams

Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others