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Why We Choke Under Pressure – and How to Avoid It

Sian Leah Beilock Ted Talk 
“Why We Choke Under Pressure – and How to Avoid It”

When we’ve practiced diligently, we’ll likely to triumph when our skill level meets a worthy challenge. And the battle shall be legendary. (Yes, I love Kung fu Panda)

Yet, when we have an observing audience, when the stakes are higher, or even when the cost of failure are large, even a seasoned performers can choke as their thought processes take an unwelcome detour to the prefrontal cortex or as Sian Leah Beilock called it, the home of insecure self-appraisals,

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Main talking note

  • Research shows that high-pressure situations cause people to overthink actions that should be automatic. (Similar to that of a professional footballer when taking a penalty kick)
  • When athletes focus on the details of their performance, they often flounder. This phenomenon is called “over-attention” or “paralysis by analysis.”. Robert Kiyosaki also used the same term when describing human inability to act due to fear of loss.
  • You can train your brain to overcome performance anxiety. Offload your fears by writing them down before your performance. Mentally prepared yourself before the actual event.
  • Practice under pressure. Train under conditions that are similar to those you’ll face during the big event. 
  • The environment plays a role in performance anxiety. For example, if a parent dreads math, a child will pick up on that fear. Help children overcome math anxiety by solving fun math problems in lieu of reading a bedtime story.
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Example

If we were to ask a college soccer player to dribble a ball down the field, you’ll likely witness an effortless display of athleticism. Have the same player repeat the exercise, this time focusing on which side of the foot makes contact with the ball, and we’ll likely see a much clumsier performance. The latter situation mimics the pressure a player might feel on game day.

When athletes are relaxed, their moves are automatic and effortless. Apply a little pressure, and they over-analyze their movements, which inhibits their flow. The human brain can handle only so much, and under pressure, it often will focus on the wrong details, derailing performance. This choking phenomenon is called “over-attention” or “paralysis by analysis.”

“This might explain why Pogba and Lukaku played well for their countries but not for United”

my internal monologue

Athletes, performers, speakers and test-takers spend much time honing their crafts or learning material, but they often neglect to train their brains to perform under pressure.

Pro golfer Jack Nicklaus is said to have combated over-attention by focusing on his pinky toe, but there are other psychological tools at your disposal.

Journaling before an event can help you offload your worries so they won’t interfere with your performance. Train in circumstances that closely resemble game-day conditions. Practice a speech in front of other people. Compete with friends to find the right answer when studying for a test, or time yourself while you try to remember an answer. Practicing under pressure will make you less likely to choke when you most need to shine.

“Rarely do we practice under the types of conditions we’re actually going to perform under, and as a result, when all eyes are on us, we sometimes flub our performance.”

Real life simulation practice would do us a world of wonders!

Choking is not entirely self-inflicted

The environment can effect how humans perform under pressure. For instance, math anxiety has a social aspect. When a teacher or parent frets about math, students succumb to that anxiety, too.

Cultural cues also prompt people especially women and girls to fear math. Highly educated people will declare their math incompetence publicly, as though they’re proud of it. Yet it’s uncommon to hear people boast of an ineptitude in other subjects, like reading.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) has revealed that math tests activate areas of the brain associated with physical pain in people with math anxiety.

Research suggests that if parents approach math the way they do reading for example, by doing fun math problems at bedtime instead of reading the usual bedtime stories children will exhibit more positive attitudes toward math, and their performance will improve throughout the school year.

I used to play a math game, don’t really remembered the game name, but generally, here is how the game works. You will be prompt with a mathematical question, you have to answer the question right in a limited time. If you failed, it’s game over, if you get it right, the next question will be harder. Maybe I’ll do the same to my son. 

Creating the right environment can help people overcome performance anxiety in high-stress situations.

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