Do you choke under pressure?
We all have those moments in our lives when we find ourselves not performing to our fullest potential. We experience a moment of pressure and choke even though we trained and trained for the event.
It’s so easy for us to overthink in a situation that we’ve practiced for. Have you ever found yourself stumbling over your words during a meeting because you were too focused on your delivery? Have you ever become so aware of your form during an athletic event that you failed to perform effectively?
If you’re answer’s “yes,” then you’re going to want to keep reading.
For today’s episode of School of Greatness, I talked to an expert on choking under pressure, Dr. Sian Beilock. She’s a master of explaining the science behind choking and overcoming it by changing your internal narrative and by practicing your skills in uncomfortable situations. If you’ve struggled with pressure (and honestly, haven’t we all?) then this episode is for you.
Dr. Sian Beilock is a celebrated cognitive scientist. She’s received numerous awards including the Outstanding Early Career Award from the Psychonomic Society and the Troland Research Award from the National Academy of Sciences. She’s published over a hundred papers in her field of study and gave a TED talk on choking under pressure. She is also the current president of Barnard College in New York City
Her book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To is all about the science behind what causes us to choke under pressure. She was also in the Olympic Development Pool for Soccer, so she knows all about the common problem of athletes choking under pressure and being unable to perform despite their rigorous training.
I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Dr. Beilock. Her scientific explanations for why we choke were fascinating and helped me better understand the role our brains play in success. Her practical advice for overcoming stressful situations helped me thrive in uncomfortable moments, and her advice will help you, too!
We began the interview by discussing common circumstances for choking under pressure and what exactly happens when someone chokes. Dr. Beilock defines choking as doing a “worse performance than you would expect, given your skill level.” She described the process that occurs internally when the “choking” feeling occurs:
“You become like really hyper-aware, and you just can’t perform as well. So you can’t remember that fact from school, or you start thinking exactly about how you’re going to throw the ball. And we know that when you get really good at something, it often operates outside of conscious awareness, and you can actually mess yourself up by thinking too much … And what happens in these situations when you’re just really aware that everyone’s watching is you start trying to control what you’re doing in a way that’s just really disruptive.” – Dr. Sian Beilock
Our brains get in our way because we overthink the action that we’re doing — which prevents us from performing effectively.
Even if you’ve trained hard for the task that you’re going to do, the fear of failure can disrupt your ability to perform well. It arises from worrying about the situation and the potential consequences the situation potentially has. One example that I’m incredibly familiar with involves sports. I used to see people train hard but then perform poorly because of the pressure of possibly losing or failing in their athletic careers.
Dr. Beilock explained that the fear occurring in the moment of choking can result from a past association causing fear in the moment, or it can be something in the present, like realizing that something important is on the line. You can also feel that fear leading up to the situation:
“… often it’s not actually in the moment as much as it’s before. Like it’s the ‘what if’s like, ‘What if something happens?’ Like how many times have you spent the night before you have to do something important worrying, and then you get there, and you can do it, right? But it’s that, sort of, it is the ‘what if’ that’s replaying what’s going to happen. And we actually can see that in the brain.” – Dr. Sian Beilock
The “choking” feeling can be detrimental to our success in a variety of areas in our lives. It can prevent you from communicating effectively — which can impact your social life and career, and it can prevent you from acting effectively in a crucial moment. It’s critical for our success to overcome choking, but how do we do it?
We can combat the pressure and fear of failure that results in us choking by changing our narratives about ourselves. It’s as simple as that. Dr. Beilock observed that our internal voices can be both a harmful and helpful tool for performing under pressure.
“I think I can say that like that inner voice can be really mean to ourselves. And so … part of it is just having compassion to yourself, stepping back a little bit. There’s even research showing that if you talk to yourself in the third person like if I say, ‘Sian, it’s okay. Think about what you’re going to do. You’ve done this before,’ it kind of separates you, and you’re better able to get some perspective. So think about talking to yourself like you would build up a good friend, right? Instead of how you kind of beat yourself down.” – Dr. Sian Beilock
If we build ourselves up, then we can perform to our fullest potential in the moment rather than letting ourselves succumb to choking from the pressure and fear. Dr. Beilock recommends re-framing your narrative from either self-talk or journaling.
“So there’s lots of research that shows that getting your thoughts down on paper can kind of download them from mind so that you’re less likely to pop up and dwell on them. We often get this like rumination, this recursive, ‘Oh, what if I don’t do well? This is going to happen.’ And you make yourself feel really bad without anything actually having happened.” – Dr. Sian Beilock
If you journal your insecurities and fears, you won’t continue the cycle of dwelling on them and letting them hurt your performance. You’ll get them out of your head and create space for a better, more empowering narrative.
Another tool we discussed for shifting our internal narratives is visualization. Visualizing what we want to accomplish helps us shape the positive internal narrative so that we can achieve what we’re striving for.
“When you watch someone do an action … the way you understand that is through motor areas of your brain. Like you were doing it yourself. And so watching them and then physically practicing [and] watching again is training your brain, essentially, to be able to succeed.” – Dr. Sian Beilock
When I was in college, I used visualization to pole vault. I’d imagine myself being able to overcome the bar every night before I went to sleep. I combined this with practice, journaling, and positive self-talk to eventually overcome the bar. It took both the physical training and believing that I could accomplish it to achieve it successfully.
There’s a balance between the mental and physical when it comes to success. You physically train, but you mentally develop the narrative that your training and practice will pay off, and you will succeed. Focus on why you should succeed rather than the possibility of failure!
In addition to changing the internal narrative, there are some practical tools to keep our brains from getting in the way under pressure. When it comes to success, we need to train and put in hard work, but when the time comes to put your training into practice, do it and don’t think about it. Train and perfect your form beforehand so that it’s something you do unconsciously.
One example that Dr. Beilock used involved the success of golfers using one-word mantras. Rather than internally focusing on their form, they concentrate on one-word mantras like “smooth” that they’d repeatedly say to prevent themselves from overthinking their form in the moment. When the moment comes to allow your training to take over, focus on a singular word to get you in the zone rather than bringing too much awareness to everything that you’re doing.
Another way to improve succeeding under pressure is by forcing yourself to train in uncomfortable situations.
“I think one of the best things to do is to practice performing under pressure. … Did you practice with everyone watching you [or] with videotapes on you [or] getting some coaches out there? Like practice being uncomfortable, right? I mean, that’s how you get used to being uncomfortable.” – Dr. Sian Beilock
When we create uncomfortable circumstances, similar to how the critical moment will be, we’re more likely to succeed. So for example, if you practice giving a speech in front of several people, you’re far more likely to give that speech successfully when the time comes.
Dive into the discomfort and train as similar to the real thing as possible. I saw a great example of this in football. Ohio State trained for a big game that they knew would be noisy by bringing in huge speakers and playing the sounds of booing spectators. They trained as close as they could to the real game despite it being incredibly uncomfortable. Here’s the bottom line: we need to embrace the discomfort and train ourselves to be used to pressure.
Dr. Beilock assured me that it’s never too late to start retraining your brain not to choke:
“Brains can change at any time. If you have someone practice juggling for six weeks, the areas of their brain that control motion will grow more connections. Right? It’s just like anything else. We know that if you practice meditation, how your brain … areas talk to each other, grow more connections.” – Dr. Sian Beilock
It’s never too late for us to start succeeding in the areas that we perform poorly in! Maybe for you it’s public speaking, sports, or test-taking! You can retrain your brain for success!
Another way in which we can succeed is by challenging ourselves by engaging in activities that we don’t specialize in. Rather than staying in our comfort zones when it comes to our activities, we can develop more in our area of interest if we engage in other interests.
“There’s a real benefit, especially early on with kids, to having a wide variety of experiences. And it turns out there’s evidence that one helps the other, right? I mean, so if you want to be a great golfer, a great baseball player, having played soccer is really great for you.” – Dr. Sian Beilock
Additionally, we must push ourselves to get out of our comfort zones with what we do so that we can learn to fail. Dr. Beilock discussed how a common problem at Barnard College is students not taking classes in fields of study that they don’t succeed in.
“Oftentimes, they’re afraid to take classes outside of their comfort zone. They’re afraid to fail because they’ve been so successful their whole life. And so we do a lot of like retraining talking about resilience, and it’s okay to do something where you’re not the best in the class … if you’re in a place where you’re only succeeding there, how are you going to deal with failure when it does come?” – Dr. Sian Beilock
We have a better chance of succeeding in our area of interest if we learn to push ourselves in areas that we don’t feel entirely comfortable with. If we stay in our comfort zone, we stand still and our potential bottoms out. But if we intentionally do the things that make us uncomfortable, we learn from our mistakes and make progress! We can learn to overcome adversity and develop the ability to continue pushing ourselves despite our failures!
Dr. Beilock also discussed how overthinking debilitates our ability to communicate effectively. When we’re engaged in a stressful moment, we often fail to listen to those around us. This can often result in miscommunication when it comes to talking to someone that you disagree with or feel uncomfortable with. It’s difficult to fully process what the other person says because we’re focused on ourselves and the stress that we’re feeling. Dr. Beilock used the example of meeting someone new in a social situation:
“Have you ever been at a party or someone introduces themselves to you, and you realize right after you don’t remember their name, like right after. And the research shows that it’s not because you forgot it. It’s that you probably weren’t even listening when they said it. Like we never got it in. ‘Cause we are … thinking about ourselves. We’re focused on ourselves or … how they were looking at us, and we just weren’t paying attention.” – Dr. Sian Beilock
When we overthink and focus on ourselves, we fail to be receptive to what other people say. It’s especially challenging to overcome this communication barrier during these stressful and uncertain times. It’s difficult to engage in constructive conversation because we feel uncomfortable and stressed when talking to people with opposing views.
“I think the idea that … you have to practice figuring out how to listen to people who have opposite views is really important. It’s not an easy skill … And it’s hard to have conversations where you feel uncomfortable. … Like it’s so much easier to talk to people who agree with you. And that’s essentially what happens on social media, right? We’re in this circle of people who agree with what we’re saying for the most part, and it’s just like echoing and reaffirmed.” – Dr. Sian Beilock
We can learn to engage in helpful discourse through seeking those uncomfortable conversations and genuinely listening to people with opposing views rather than only seeking out people who agree with us. Talking to people who disagree with us can also help develop and strengthen our beliefs.
“It makes your ideas better. If you have to argue your point, and you have to get it across, it makes whatever you do better. That’s what academic greatness is about.” – Dr. Sian Beilock
Dr. Beilock feels optimistic that amid the difficult conversations that we’re currently having about racial injustice, people are growing in being able to learn and communicate despite being uncomfortable.
“We’re having difficult conversations about structural racism and class issues that we haven’t really confronted in the same way. And it’s going to be uncomfortable, and not everyone’s going to agree, but I think we’re also seeing some really fantastic aspects of human nature come out of this, along with all the negativity.” – Dr. Sian Beilock
I was incredibly pleased to hear Dr. Beilock’s optimistic perspective on how we’re growing in our communication and are learning from one another amidst the current uncomfortable circumstances. During this time, I am intentionally having conversations, some of which are painful and difficult, surrounding racial injustice, and I hope that you’ll join me in the discussion!
Learning to work in uncomfortable situations is essential for our success and for overcoming choking. We can greatly improve our performances and grow in all areas of our lives by pushing ourselves to overcome adversity rather than straying away from it.
Don’t be afraid of getting out of your comfort zone — embrace the discomfort and grow in difficult situations!
Her three truths embody her advice for overcoming choking and succeeding in your life:
“… it’s really important to be happy. I think we discount, you know, happiness and finding ways to be happy with what we’re doing. A second I would focus on … having compassion for yourself … and the final one I’d say is that, you know … research shows that you can learn things, you can learn to perform better under pressure … You’re not born one way or another.” – Dr. Sian Beilock
I loved her short, but thought-provoking, definition of greatness:
“Someone who gives it their all, all the time.” – Dr. Sian Beilock
I was incredibly blessed to be able to have such an edifying interview with Dr. Sian Beilock. If you want to learn even more from Dr. Beilock, check out her enlightening books Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To and How the Body Knows Its Mind: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel. You can also keep up with her on Instagram (@presbeilock) and Twitter (@sianbeilock).
Friends, never stop seeking discomfort. We aren’t meant to be comfortable. We’re meant to be great.