All of us have prepared for days, weeks or even years, for a big day when you finally have the chance to shine. That big game, that one important speech, that one interview or that life-defining audition. However, when the crucial moment arrives, nothing seems to work. You hit the wrong note, drop the ball, or you get stumped by a simple question. You freeze. It happens to all of us.
In her book titled Choke, The Secret to Performing Under Pressure, President of Barnard College and neuroscientist Dr. Sian Beilock tries to explain why all too often we fail when the stakes are too high. She argues that this happens on two fronts. The first is when the challenge we face is a cognitive one while the other is when we are performing a physical skill during a critical moment. The anxiety we feel about failing in both circumstances interferes with the working memory capacity we need to think clearly and well.
How can we overcome this choke and perform the task before us with all our focus and ace it? I will endeavor to shed light on this concept of choking under pressure and highlight 3 ways we can all recover from this block.
First, you must strive to be undistracted by your surroundings. This is highlighted by a study done by a Pro basketballer, Reggie Jackson in his book, Attention, and Performance. He argues that when you have to stop and think that’s when you mess up. Little wonder that in basketball, the term “unconscious” is used to describe a shooter who can’t miss. One who is never bothered by the intensity of the game or the cheers or boos from the crowd. In dance, the great choreographer, George Balanchine, used to urge his dancers, “Don’t think, just do.” When the pressure’s on, when we want to put our best foot forward, somewhat ironically, we are often caught in what Reggie described as Paralysis of the analysis which leads us to perform worse than we normally do. Don’t think, just do.
The second solution we can employ is practicing in the same conditions that we’re going to perform under. In a 2017 article in Current Opinion in Psychology, Christopher Mesagno argues that closing the gap between training and competition can help us get used to that feeling of all eyes on us. This is true off the playing field as well. Getting used to the types of situations you’re going to perform under really matters. When you’re taking a test, close the book, practice retrieving the answer from memory under timed situations, and when you’re giving a talk, practice in front of others. And if you can’t find anyone who will listen, practice in front of a video camera or even a mirror. The ability to get used to what it will feel like can make the difference in whether we choke or thrive.
Finally, it is important to get rid of those pesky worries and self-doubts that tend to creep up in the stressful situations. In her 2010 research theses at Eastern Michigan University, Briana Murnahan notes that simply jotting down your thoughts and worries before a stressful event can help to download them from the mind. This, in turn, makes them less likely to pop up in the moment. Journaling, or getting those thoughts down on paper, makes it less likely they’ll pop up and distract you in the moment. The end result is that you can perform your best when it matters most.
If you aspire to be cool under maximum pressure or you find yourself tongue-tied when it matters most, remember these three things. First, don’t think, just do- this will help you overcome the paralysis of analysis. Secondly, practise often in the same conditions that we’re going to perform under. This will help you get used to the limelight and pressure. And finally, get rid of self-doubt by writing down what you feel before your performance.
What happens in our heads really matters, and knowing this, we can learn how to prepare ourselves and others for success. We can prepare not just on the playing field but also in our businesses, in boardrooms and on the podium and deliver stellar performances every time.