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The Science of Choking Under Pressure

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David M. Brenner, ChFC®, CLU®

D. M. Brenner, Inc.
Phone : (858) 345-1001
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Choking under pressure — freezing and underperforming when it matters most, even despite deep expertise and years of practice — is well known in the world of sports. But we hear less about the day-to-day chokes that happen at work.


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Most of us can recall a few of our own choking moments. Maybe you lost your voice or your ability to think straight when speaking with an important client, manager or audience. To help prevent “the choke” at work, we can apply lessons from the world of sports.

When you choke, physiologically, your body has entered into “protection from danger” mode and has released a cocktail of stress-related hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These can elevate your breathing and heart rate, dilate your pupils and make you sweat. When under threat, your working memory becomes impaired, meaning you have trouble making sense of and acting on new information, become more prone to remembering and reliving negative emotional experiences and consciously overthink behaviors that should be second nature. Ultimately, choking can trigger a vicious cycle of self-doubt, shame, guilt and fear, making it all the more likely you’ll choke again, limit taking future risks and even suffer long-term mental-health consequences.

You’re most likely to choke when the external demands or pressure of the situation overwhelm your personal resources to cope with it. But a choke can also happen when the pressure remains constant and your ability to use coping resources becomes depleted — for example, when you begin to question your abilities.

Like an athlete getting ready for a big game, you can use a number of techniques to help you reduce the pressure or boost your ability to cope with it, which will ultimately help you both prevent and navigate through a potential choke.

BE THERE, OVER AND OVER.

The same part of the brain is activated when we visualize an action and when we actually perform the action. That’s why mental imagery is used to improve motor learning in rehabilitative settings, such as after a stroke.

In the world of sports, athletes like Serena Williams, Wayne Rooney and Michael Jordan are strong believers in visualization. Visualizing previous successes at crucial moments has several benefits: It prepares athletes for various scenarios and allows them to manage expectations and emotions more effectively. A significant body of scientific evidence shows that the power of visualization enhances strength, accuracy and endurance, reduces anxiety and increases a sense of control in emergency situations.

When preparing for a big moment at work, rehearse it in your mind with as much clarity and detail as you can. What will it look and feel like to walk into your manager’s office and ask for that raise? How do the lights feel as you walk out in front of the audience, into the boardroom, onto the stage or even sign in to Zoom? What will your first words be?

PRACTICE FOR PRESSURE.

Athletes train not only for skills and abilities, but also for pressure. Top coaches introduce mental, technical, tactical and physical competitive stressors by unexpectedly changing the usual conditions. For example, they might force right-footed soccer players to use only their left foot during practice, or introduce better opponents by surprise.

Rehearsing is important, whether you’re alone in your office or in front of a camera or crowd. You can raise the stakes by asking your audience to interrupt you, say a negative comment or switch off your computer, forcing you to continue without your supporting slides.

DEVELOP A PREPERFORMANCE ROUTINE.

The routines you see and hear before an athlete delivers an important serve in tennis, a free throw in basketball or a penalty kick in soccer have a very important purpose. A preperformance routine can help you clear your mind, get into the moment and set that well-honed skill to autopilot.

At work, you might develop a short ritual, such as breathing exercises, repeating a phrase or mantra, listening to a particular song, sipping a favorite tea or doing a few stretches, that can get you in the right mindset to tackle those first moments before autopilot can kick in. Once you’ve got a routine you’re comfortable with, you can use it whenever you need to access the knowledge, skills and behaviors you’ve been trained for. You might also develop a mini routine that you return to when you realize you’re choking.

DON’T THINK, JUST DO.

Most athletes know that overthinking in the moment can make them doubt themselves or focus too much on every aspect of a movement instead of letting it go, triggering a choke. To avoid this, some athletes opt for self-distraction in the minutes or hours before a race or a game. Listening to music, reading or doing something with your hands to stay out of your head are ways to escape from the surrounding elements and thoughts that could add pressure.

Mindfulness and meditation techniques help train you to acknowledge your surroundings while remaining alert, attentive and present within yourself in the moment. A wealth of research shows how mindfulness and meditation can calm the brain and nervous system, reduce anxiety and improve performance. Simply writing down your fears can also help alleviate them for performance.

DEVELOP A STRESS MINDSET.

The tennis legend Billie Jean King has said, “Pressure is a privilege.” Shifting your mindset from “stress is depleting” to “stress is enhancing” actually changes the way your body responds to it. To do this, next time you’re nervous and feel your heart starting to race, don’t tell yourself to calm down. Rather, tell yourself you’re excited and gearing up for optimal performance.

RATIONALIZE THE EVENT AND YOUR BUMPS ALONG THE WAY.

It’s important to put your performance into perspective, so the anticipated results don’t overwhelm your ability to perform. This involves, for example, disconnecting your identity from the results. A loss doesn’t mean that you are a loser, and a win doesn’t mean that you are a winner. The basketball coach Dawn Stanley has a “24-hour rule” for athletes, allowing them a single day to bask in their victory or agonize over their defeat.

NOBODY IS IMMUNE from choking in a big moment. What we learn from the greatest athletes in the world is that there are behaviors and mindsets we can practice to help prevent a choke and better navigate it when it arrives.

c.2022 Harvard Business Review. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group.

This HBR article was legally licensed through AdvisorStream.

David M. Brenner profile photo

David M. Brenner, ChFC®, CLU®

D. M. Brenner, Inc.
Phone : (858) 345-1001
Schedule a Meeting