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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, RD&T’s contributing writer, 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.”

Who Chokes Under Pressure?

A 2014 study found that people who are lonely tend to choke under self-imposed social pressure. When we feel desperate to connect, we end up spilling our drink or tripping over our feet, and not in an adorable Jennifer Lawrence kind of way.

This study examined the film footage of 400 penalty kicks in professional soccer games. The study notes that players who took less than a second to place the ball down scored only 58% of the time while those players who did not rush and took longer than a second scored 80% of the time.

Smarter people choke more frequently.

Specifically, Beilock has found that people who have greater working memory (the amount of stuff you can actively hold in your mind at once) are more prone to choking when doing math problems, for instance, in a high-pressure situation.

One reason for that? These people are used to being able to get by with their big working memories to solve these problems. But when their working memory gets clogged with worry, they have to switch to using other kinds of strategies that they’re not as accustomed to. This ends up taking away some of their natural advantages.

Despite the fact that not choking involves not thinking, clearing your mind often, paradoxically, involves a deliberate routine. Pitchers may check the bases, regardless if any players are on them before a pitch, for example. Basketball players may dribble a certain way or throw the ball up in the air before taking a free throw. When you rush into any of these scenarios, you hamper your body’s ability to go into auto-pilot, and thus, you increase your chances of choking.

The Role of Loss-Aversion

Whether you choke under pressure might have more to do with your motivation: specifically, to what extent that you are driven by a desire to win or by a desire to avoid losing. If you’re very loss-averse — meaning that you hate losing more than you love winning — your chances of choking will be lower. But for those who value the rush of winning over the pain of losing, the likelihood of choking is often higher.  [This] Johns Hopkins study found that those who hated losing the most choked when told that they stood to win the most, while those who cared more about winning choked when they stood to lose something significant. In other words, it’s all about how you frame the incentive: as a loss or as a gain.

High loss aversion actually helped participants when they faced increasing losses — they didn’t choke, even when the loss was significant. … The opposite happened to those with low loss aversion: their performance improved with both increasing prospective gains and increasing prospective losses, but they choked when threatened a significant loss.

So how can we apply this information to improve our own performance? One way would be to use cognitive strategies to reframe high-stakes situations so as to help minimize your chances of poor performance. So if you’re someone who plays to win, try to avoid framing the situation more in terms of what you could stand to lose. ‘From this study, it seems that knowing an individual’s loss aversion could be used to determine the best way to frame incentives in the workplace,’ Chib added. (Huffington Post)

What to Do About Choking

Thinking too much about what you are doing, because you are worried about losing a competition … or worrying about failing in general, can lead to over-analyzing the situation. This ‘paralysis by analysis’ occurs when people try to control every aspect of what they are doing in an attempt to ensure success. However, this increased attempt at control can backfire, disrupting what was once a fluid or flawless performance.


‘My research team and I have found that highly skilled golfers are more likely to hole a simple 3-foot putt when we give them the tools to stop analyzing their shot, to stop thinking,’ Beilock said. ‘Highly practiced putts run better when you don’t try to control every aspect of performance.’ Even a simple trick of singing helps prevent portions of the brain that might interfere with the performance from taking over, Beilock’s research shows. (University of Chicago)

The brain also can work to sabotage performance in ways.

Pressure-filled situations can deplete a part of the brain’s processing power known as working memory,  which is critical to many everyday activities. Beilock  contends as a result of her research that working memory helps people perform at their best in physical, intellectual and applied situations including business. This working memory is located in the prefrontal cortex that serves as limited temporary storage for information needed to complete immediate tasks. Very talented and able people have larger working memories, but this is where the problem arises. When anxiety or fear creeps in, the working memory becomes overtaxed, and you lose the brainpower to succeed.

Choking can also result from what is termed “stereotype threat,” when otherwise talented people don’t perform up to their abilities because they are worried about confirming popular cultural myths. Examples are that boys and girls naturally perform differently in math or that a person’s race determines his or her test performance. Another example is when a racial group or gender to which they belong is widely believed to be either inferior at tasks. These worries deplete the working memory necessary for success. The perceptions take hold early in schooling and can be either reinforced or abolished by powerful role models.

In one study, researchers gave tests to black and white students, both before and after President Obama was elected. Black test takers performed worse than white test takers before the election. Immediately after Obama’s election, however, blacks’ performance improved so much that their scores were nearly equal with whites. When black students can overcome the worries brought on by stereotypes, because they see someone like President Obama who directly counters myths about racial variation in intelligence, their performance improves.


Beilock and her colleagues also have shown that when first-grade girls believe that boys are better than girls at math, they perform more poorly on math tests. One big source of this belief? The girls’ female teachers. It turns out that elementary school teachers are often highly anxious about their own math abilities, and this anxiety is modeled from teacher to student. When the teachers serve as positive role models in math, their male and female students perform equally well.


Even when a student is not a member of a stereotyped group, tests can be challenging for the brightest people, who can clutch if anxiety taps out their mental resources. (University of Chicago)

In these circumstances, meditation, which has been widely researched for its benefits, can help significantly.

In tests in her lab, Beilock and her research team gave people with no meditation experience 10 minutes of meditation training before they took a high-stakes test. Students with meditation preparation scored 87, or B+, versus the 82 or B- score of those without meditation training. This difference in performance occurred despite the fact that all students were of equal ability. (University of Chicago)

This is Part One of a two-part series. Find Part Two here.


Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and Asia.

Copyright: Neither this article or a portion thereof may be reproduced in any print or media format without the express permission of the author.

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