We’ve all heard of or experienced ourselves the mental or physical brain freeze that’s often described as “choking” under pressure. Why did Michelle Kwan, favoured to win the gold in the 2002 Olympics, fall on a triple jump, leaving the gold to Sarah Hughes? Why did Greg Norman lose his lead and the Masters to Nick Faldo in 1996? While this is frequently described as a result of anxiety or nervousness, new research points to a type of “log-jam” in the brain.
University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock’s research on this issue, published in her new book, “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To,” describes how a star athlete can collapse in a competition or student fail a critical test, or a professional botch a presentation.
“Choking is suboptimal performance, not just poor performance. It’s a performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past and occurs when you feel pressure to get everything right,” argues Beilock.
By studying how the brain works when we are doing our best – and when we choke – Beilock has formulated practical ideas about how to overcome performance lapses at critical moments.
“Choking is suboptimal performance, not just poor performance. It’s a performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past and occurs when you feel pressure to get everything right,” says Beilock.
Thinking too much about what you are doing, because you are worried about losing a competition or worrying about failing in general, can lead to over-analyzing the situation. This paralysis by analysis occurs when people try to control every aspect of what they are doing in an attempt to guarantee success. However, this increased attempt at control can backfire, disrupting what was once a fluid or flawless performance.
“My research team and I have found that highly skilled golfers are more likely to hole a simple 3-foot putt when we give them the tools to stop analyzing their shot, to stop thinking,” Beilock said. “Highly practiced putts run better when you don’t try to control every aspect of performance.” Even a simple trick of singing helps prevent portions of the brain that might interfere with performance from taking over, Beilock’s research shows.
The brain also can work to sabotage performance in ways. Pressure-filled situations can deplete a part of the brain’s processing power known as working memory, which is critical to many everyday activities. Beilock contends as a result of her research that working memory helps people perform at their best in physical, intellectual and applied situations including business. This working memory is located in the prefrontal cortex that serves as a limited temporary storage for information needed to complete immediate tasks. Very talented and able people have larger working memories, but this is where the problem arises. When anxiety or fear creeps in, the working memory becomes overtaxed, and you loose the brain power to succeed.
Choking can also result from what is termed “stereotype threat,” when otherwise talented people don’t perform up to their abilities because they are worried about confirming popular cultural myths. Examples are that boys and girls naturally perform differently in math or that a person’s race determines his or her test performance. Another example is when a racial group or gender to which they belong is widely believed to be either inferior at tasks. These worries deplete the working memory necessary for success. The perceptions take hold early in schooling and can be either reinforced or abolished by powerful role models.
In one study, researchers gave standardized tests to black and white students, both before and after President Obama was elected. Black test takers performed worse than white test takers before the election. Immediately after Obama’s election, however, blacks’ performance improved so much that their scores were nearly equal with whites. When black students can overcome the worries brought on by stereotypes, because they see someone like President Obama who directly counters myths about racial variation in intelligence, their performance improves.
Beilock and her colleagues also have shown that when first-grade girls believe that boys are better than girls at math, they perform more poorly on math tests. One big source of this belief? The girls’ female teachers. It turns out that elementary school teachers are often highly anxious about their own math abilities, and this anxiety is modeled from teacher to student. When the teachers serve as positive role models in math, their male and female students perform equally well.
Even when a student is not a member of a stereotyped group, tests can be challenging for the brightest people, who can clutch if anxiety taps out their mental resources. In these circumstances instance, meditation, which has been widely researched for its benefits, can help significantly.
In tests in her lab, Beilock and her research team gave people with no meditation experience 10 minutes of meditation training before they took a high-stakes test. Students with meditation preparation scored 87, or B+, versus the 82 or B- score of those without meditation training. This difference in performance occurred despite the fact that all students were of equal ability.
Stress can lead to choking and undermine performance in the world of business, where competition for sales, giving high-stakes presentations or even meeting your boss in the elevator are occasions when choking can squander opportunities.
Paying too much attention to well-learned skill execution may be detrimental to performance. Understanding the cognitive mechanisms leading to poor performance under pressure, as shown in these experiments, can lead to prevention, says Beilock, in “real-world tasks in which serious consequences depend on good or poor performance in relatively public or consequential circumstances.” For example, many aspects of public speaking may ordinarily be automatic. However, lawyers giving a closing argument to a jury may feel pressure to perform, and as a result, think too much about what they are doing –and stutter or lose their train of thought. Training under conditions that have individuals attend to their performance, or, conversely, purposely taking one’s mind off well-learned skill performance under pressure. For example, repeating a key word, singing a song, seeing a favoriate image, recalling a pleasurable event, can help prevent choking.
We know from research on mastering skills or tasks, that practice, and a lot of it is necessary. But, practicing under stress – even a moderate amount – helps a person feel comfortable when they find themselves standing in the line of fire, Beilock said. The experience of having dealt with stress makes those situations seem familiar, and not so daunting. The goal is to close the gap between practice and performance.
“Think about the journey, not the outcome,” Beilock advised. “Remind yourself that you have the background to succeed and that you are in control of the situation. This can be the confidence boost you need to ace your pitch or to succeed in other ways when facing life’s challenges.”