November 19

Don’t Choke Under Pressure: How to Keep Calm and Carry On

Cricket, for the uninitiated, is a sport—a bat and ball game with rules and formats that can take years to explain (and play, if you ask me.) In some parts of the world, though, cricket is sacrosanct—even more so than religion. It isn't surprising then that a trending hashtag on Twitter recently was #chokers, an honor sarcastically bestowed by a disappointed fanbase upon the Indian cricket team for the team's tendency to consistently choke under pressure. By reliably squandering away chances to win and always seeming to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the Indian men's cricket team had earned a well-deserved "chokers" tag.

Choking under pressure is a phenomenon most of us can relate to. It is when the immensity of the event gets to us, and we fail to perform. Bungled sales presentations, failed exams, botched tryouts, sweaty speeches are examples of how we choke under pressure. It's when we experience those deer in the headlight moments that seem to catch us off guard and throw us off our game, especially when the stakes are high.  

It isn't just the unprepared who choke under pressure, either.

In 1992, leading up to the Barcelona Summer Olympics, Reebok launched the massively high-profile (and expensive) Dan or Dave ad campaign featuring Dan' O Brien and Dave Johnson, rival American decathletes. The ads were everywhere and had one central theme—who would win the coveted greatest athlete title in Barcelona? Was it going to be Dan or Dave? The country was frenzied and divided.

Then five weeks before the Olympics, something unforeseen happened. At the US Olympic trials (the meets at which US representatives for the Olympics are chosen,) Dan' O Brien tried to clear the Pole vault. And failed. Not once, but three times. In his own words, O Brien said

When I missed on the first one, that put a little more pressure on the second one, and when I missed on that one, that put even more pressure on the third.

The result? Dan did not qualify for the US team that went to Barcelona. Reebok was left scrambling—their overhyped campaign in shambles because they hadn't bargained for their campaign star to choke under pressure. In retrospect, Reebok's ad campaign is now a classic case study on how not to put the cart before the horse.

Dan's performance begs the question, though. Why do we, star decathletes included, choke under pressure?

Why do we choke under pressure?

The stomach-churning moments before everything turns to custard is something we've either witnessed or experienced ourselves. And, it's not just for lack of preparedness. History is littered with examples of top performers in all fields bombing in prime time.

There are a few key reasons why we choke under pressure. Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and expert in this field, in fact, has a whole book on this subject: Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To.

Here are some key reasons why we bumble when it is most inconvenient.

1. Analysis/Paralysis

Mark Twain famously said, "I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened."

We are an overthinking bunch. We tell ourselves all kinds of stories because we fear failure, and to combat it, we turn into mini (or major) control freaks. This kind of over worrying and overthinking means we end up thinking instead of doing at inopportune times. The thinking, in turn, causes our brain circuits to backfire. Stuck in the rut of analysis/paralysis, we're then not sure what we are to do in the first place.

Result: Blunder(s).

2. Lost working memory

When we are faced with pressure, our body goes into fight or flight mode, diverting blood from non-essential tasks to protecting critical organs such as the lungs and heart. One of those non-essential functions compromised in the process is working memory. Here's why that matters to performance:

A good working memory is a key to good decision-making. Consequently, when working memory is depleted, it compromises our decision-making power resulting in us making poor or erroneous judgments.

3. What will others think of me?

For most of us, the main thing that inhibits clarity of thought and causes us to choke under pressure is this question: "How is this action going to reflect on me?" Or, to put it differently, "What will others think of me?"

Instead of focusing on the task at hand, when we start to focus on ourselves or on the audience, things go awry. Our pride and ego get in the way. We forget that a lousy speech is just that—a bad speech. It does not mean we are bad at everything we do.

Psychologists refer to this as performance anxiety. According to Beilock,

actively worrying about screwing up makes you more likely to screw up.

4. Playing to win

Do you play to avoid losing, or do you play to win? According to a research study, our relationship to winning may dictate how likely we will choke under pressure.

If you genuinely hate losing—i.e., you are highly loss-averse—then it's more likely for you to choke under pressure because you see the world through the lens of everything being a potential loss (even a win can be viewed as an outsize opportunity to lose.)

In short, we choke under pressure because we are human. Can we do something about it, though? (The choking, not the human.)

How to not choke under pressure

Here are a few ways to keep calm and carry on.

1. Practice. But under some stress.

Practice under stress. If, as part of my marathon training, all I do are leisurely jogs, then obviously, any sort of actual running on race day is going to freak my brain out. Instead, if I prep under some of the likely stress of the actual event, it can help get my brain on board, ready, and comfortable. Ultimately, it's all about expanding our comfort zones.

This means not surprising your brain on the day of the event. If you're fearful of a public speech, practice in front of your family or a smaller audience instead of just on your own. It's all about prepping the brain to "race day" conditions, even if it's done in small measures.  

2. Do it again. And again.

I know this one to be true.

The first time I was at the marathon start line, it was daunting. Twenty-six miles seemed like a long way away. I had all sorts of negative scenarios running through my head. But over the years, I've run the distance again and again. Now my brain knows what to expect when I show up at a start line. Instead of getting crazy anxious, it simply whispers (in a resigned tone) – "Are we doing this again?"

To avoid choking under pressure, it helps if you can take the momentousness out of the occasion. 

Create mock "big days" so the actual big day will lose its scariness.

3. Distract yourself

Remember all the things you needed to keep track of the first time you learned to ride a bike or drive a car? You were conscious of every single step in the process. But over the years, driving a car or riding a bike is simply part of your muscle memory. In fact, you may struggle to break down the process into discrete steps now.

With practice, tasks become automatic. But instead of letting sleeping dogs lie, under pressure, we start to dissect instinctive processes. That, in turn, can cause us to choke under pressure.

Instead, simply trust your training and have a ritual or two to distract yourself, so you don't interfere with what the brain already knows.

Tell a joke, sing a song, clap your hands, or do whatever corny idea comes to your mind. Distracting yourself allows the automatic task to render itself without you getting in the way.

4. Control your breath

Performance anxiety is when the body's sympathetic nervous system is activated. Stress hormones are released. The body thinks something terrible will happen, and you start to breathe heavily to take in more oxygen.

At such times intentional focus on the breath can help us calm down. But if you've never tried to control your breath before, it's not going to happen when you are nervous. That's what the practice of meditation is for. To avoid choking under pressure, it's good to learn to tame the monkey mind through meditation.

5. Let go of perfectionism

Wanting everything to go perfectly is, pardon the expression—a perfect recipe to choke under pressure. Perfect is the enemy of good.

By wanting everything to work out precisely as intended, we are simply energizing our inner control freaks which, in turn, leads us to interfere in processes that are best left to work on autopilot. Instead of trying to be perfect, it's best to trust the training and engage in doing.

6. Reschedule your self-doubting time

It is hard not to doubt ourselves or our abilities. That said, the time to engage in self-doubt is not when you are about to give an important sales presentation. Researchers have suggested that simple acts such as journaling or simply writing a worry-list (and tossing that away) will help transfer those doubts from your mind onto paper. It's okay to take a few minutes to imagine the worst-case scenario and write it down—before the big event. That process helps to free up and improves working memory.

7. Understand limitations

This is an obvious one. If the demands of the task exceed your capability or capacity, then, of course, you will choke under pressure.

If all you've ever done is take leisurely walks around your neighborhood, then it would be prudent to think twice about showing up at the start line of a marathon (or, for that matter, a 10K).

The task you are attempting should be in proportion to the training you've received. Yes, you can learn on the job, but diving headfirst into the deep end without understanding how deep the pool is simply an invitation to disaster.

8. Don't dawdle

I have strong feelings on this subject, so excuse me if I sound harsh. Puttering around, measuring this and that, over analyzing your options, etc., are all simply additional opportunities to choke under pressure. I'm not suggesting a mad rush, but loitering and dilly-dallying messes with the automaticity of the movement.

This is especially true when it comes to physical sports. It's hard not to lose patience when you see some golfers contemplate their options before they putt. They pace from and to the hole a few times. Sometimes they crouch and view their angles to the hole from multiple directions. They pluck and blow on random blades of grass to see which way the wind is blowing. In short, they do everything but putt.

Yes, there may be a method to this madness, but at some point, you end up just confusing your brain with too much thought. Don't be that person. For Pete's sake, just do it. Already.

9. Focus on the process, not the outcome

I saved the best for the last. And also, because this is the hardest to do (unless you are a monk.) The most foolproof way to not choke under pressure is to simply do what you're supposed to do without worrying about the results. I know. Easier said than done.

It's no wonder "Do your best but don't fixate on the outcome" is simply the greatest self-help advice in the world, and yet it confounds us the most.


Did you know: In addition to extremely high temperatures, approximately 725,000 pounds per square inch of pressure is needed for carbon atoms to bond together to form into a diamond eventually.

Pressure, by itself, isn't all that bad. It can be conducive and a great motivator. And can create diamonds in the rough. It's just that we need to learn how to not choke under pressure.

Cricketer Craig Matthews once said about a game:

I don't think we choked this time. We never played well enough to choke.

The bright side: if you feel like you're choking under pressure, it means you're doing something you genuinely care about, and you are giving it your best.

So, let's first learn to do or play well enough and then use the actionable tips described above to prevent us from buckling under pressure.

In the meantime, we can keep searching for something that seems more elusive than world peace. Equanimity.



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