6 Science-Backed Strategies to Avoid Choking Under Pressure

Failing spectacularly in a high-stakes situation is a near-universal experience. Fortunately, there’s plenty of research on how to keep a cool head.

Photo by Chase Fade on Unsplash

Even now, 10 years later, I still remember the moment with excruciating clarity: During the fourth and final round of a high school regional speech competition, after a full day of flawless performances, I went up to the front of the auditorium for my last speech and froze.

In a way, my entire senior had been leading up to that point. For six months, I had painstakingly prepared and rehearsed that piece — a prose reading — in the hopes that I would qualify for the state finals. I had placed in the top three in my event at every competition that season; if I did the same at regionals, I had my ticket to the next round.

Needless to say, I blew it. Although I had fully committed the piece to memory at that point, I couldn’t, for the life of me, recall a single word. Like an amateur, I kept stuttering, stumbling, and looking down at my book. It was a brutal end to an otherwise stellar season.

As humiliating as the experience was, I took some small amount of comfort (and still do) in knowing that some version of this happens to everyone. Choking under pressure is a widely studied phenomenon, one that afflicts speakers, athletes, performers, test-takers — really, anyone who’s in a high-pressure situation.

The process is physical as much as it is mental. Anxiety causes the body to release adrenaline, which acts as a powerful stimulant, and endorphins, which act as a mild opiate. “When you’re anxious, you’re also basically a little high and a little stoned,” says Aimee Daramus, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Chicago. High-stakes situations can also cause neurological reactions like distraction, memory loss, and loss of motor function, all of which can impact performance.

Fortunately, for every reason people choke under pressure, there’s also a rigorously studied, scientific strategy for combatting it. Here are six of them.

Don’t think too hard.

When you’re trying to do your best, you can also fall into the trap of trying to control things that are better left to your subconscious mind. In a 2017 TED Talk, cognitive scientist Sian Beilock, who studies performance anxiety, called this phenomenon “paralysis by analysis” — the idea that trying to analyze or control your performance, instead of just letting it happen, can trip you up in something that would otherwise feel natural.

In one study, Beilock and her colleagues took novice and experienced soccer players and had them dribble a soccer ball while performing other cognitive tasks. When asked to focus their attention on the foot dribbling the ball, the novices’ dribbling skills improved. But for the experienced players — whose skills had already become automatic — their dribbling was “slower and more error-prone when we drew their attention to the step-by-step details of what they were doing,” Beilock said. In other words: Just do, don’t think.

Practice under pressure.

If you ace all the practice tests in your study guide but forget the material once you sit down to take an exam, you can blame a phenomenon researchers call state-dependent learning.

“State-dependent learning essentially means that when you learn something while your brain is in one chemical state, you remember it best in the same chemical state,” Daramus explains. Since most people study or rehearse in a calm environment, they’re not coursing with the same cortisol and adrenaline that are present on the day of the real thing. Timing your practice or doing it in front of an attentive audience are two ways to mimic the circumstances you’ll be facing during whatever it is you’re practicing for.

Pretend like you’ve already won.

Pay attention to how you’re thinking about the situation at hand: Do you have something to gain, or something to lose?

In a recent study in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers asked participants to plan a computer game for money; as one might expect, the bigger the prize, the more likely they were to choke. But when the researchers asked the players to rethink the incentive — to approach the game as playing to keep something they had, rather than playing to win something they didn’t — rates of choking went down dramatically.

Tell yourself that you’re in control.

No matter what the context, people who believe they have the ability to influence what happens to them (called “control beliefs”) tend to perform better at a given task. In one study in which soccer players were asked to perform penalty kicks, participants with high control beliefs about their ability to score managed to aim their shots more optimally than those with low control beliefs.

It might seem simplistic to say that changing your outlook will change your performance, but it’s a well-known psychological technique called cognitive reframing, and it’s been shown to be effective in reducing emotions like anxiety or frustration that lead to choking, says psychologist Marc Jones, a professor at Manchester Metropolitan University in the U.K.

“For example, a field hockey player may perceive an umpire’s error as a genuine mistake, rather than an example of biased decision-making, and accordingly not feel angry,” Jones said. “An athlete who perceives participating in the Olympic Games as tremendous opportunity may feel excited rather than pressured.” And other research has found that people who use cognitive reframing techniques report lower anxiety — and better performance.

Give yourself a pep talk.

Changing the way you talk to yourself can change your performance as well. Researchers have hypothesized that negative internal thoughts, like a fear of losing or deep shame, can provoke physiological responses in the body: an increase in muscle tension, respiration, and heart rate. These things, in turn, lead to performance-killing symptoms like loss of muscle coordination, loss of fine motor skills, and fatigue.

So what’s the antidote? Jones advises replacing negative statements with something positive or neutral — saying to yourself, for example, “I have been performing so well in training!” rather than telling yourself how ferociously an opposing team plays.

Research bears this out: In one study about music performance anxiety, for example, one group of researchers found that just a few 90-minute sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy, focusing on challenging negative thoughts and replacing them with positive thoughts, vastly improved the quality of performance. Granted, actually challenging those thoughts as they happen is easier said than done. But if you’re going to practice whatever it is you’re preparing for, it couldn’t hurt to practice the pep talks, too — lest you ever find yourself, say, frozen on a stage and at a loss for how to move forward.

Give me a good essay and some sushi and I’m good to go.

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