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“Choking” Under Pressure

Part One: Why Does This Happen?

written by Ray Williams May 18, 2020

In Part One of this two-part series, Ray Williams, shares reasons why people choke under pressure.

Choking Under Pressure

We’ve all heard of or experienced ourselves, the mental or physical “brain freeze” that’s often described as “choking” under pressure.

Why did Michelle Kwan, favoured to win the gold medal in the 2002 Olympics, fall on a triple jump, leaving the gold to Sarah Hughes? Why did Greg Norman lose his lead and the Masters to Nick Faldo in 1996? Why do actors, singers, musicians and public speakers freeze or “choke” when asked to perform, even if they are experienced? While this is frequently described as a result of anxiety or nervousness, new research points to a type of “log-jam” in the brain.

University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock’s research on this issue, published in her new book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have Todescribes how a star athlete can collapse in a competition, how a student can student fail a critical test, or a how a professional can botch a presentation.

Choking is suboptimal performance, not just poor performance. It’s a performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past and occurs when you feel pressure to get everything right, argues Beilock.

In an article in Scientific American, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen says “it’s not just objectively pressure-filled situations, it’s anytime you psych yourself out.”

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