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Why We Choke Under Pressure—Plus How to Stop

Choking under pressure happens to everyone from professional athletes to ten-year-olds taking a math test. Even socially awkward moments have their roots in choking, recent research shows. This week on the Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen reveals why we choke and how to come through in the clutch.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
June 2, 2017
Episode #156

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Pulling off a great performance under pressure is one of the biggest highs out there—after all, they say a diamond is just coal that did well under pressure.

The opposite—choking—is usually a sports term. It’s missing the extra point after the touchdown, blowing your putt, or watching your free throw roll around the rim and then sadly drop off.

Entire teams can choke—for example, the 2004 Yankees. (“There’s no way the Red Sox will come back to win four in a row. That’s impossible.”) And, to be fair, there’s also the 1986 Red Sox (although the beleaguered Bill Buckner was welcomed home to a standing ovation when he threw out the first pitch at the 2008 home opener).

But choking doesn’t just happen to athletes. Choking happens to school kids with test anxiety, musicians auditioning in front of stone-faced judges, and actors trying out for a breakout role.

And it’s not just objectively pressure-filled situations, it’s anytime you psych yourself out.

For instance, a recent study found that people who are lonely tend to choke under self-imposed social pressure. When we feel desperate to connect, we end up spilling our drink or tripping over our feet, and not in an adorable Jennifer Lawrence kind of way.

Therefore, this week, we’ll talk about why we choke and 4 ways to give yourself a psychological Heimlich maneuver.

Why We Choke Under Pressure

Choking is defined the delivery of a poor performance given one’s skill level, especially in a high pressure situation. Why does it happen? That depends on the task at hand.

Choke Type #1: We get distracted by our own worry.

The first kind of choking happens when we need to think our way through a task—high-stakes college aptitude tests, an interview for a your dream job, even the fifth-grade spelling bee. In this kind of task, you rely on your working memory to make decisions and put forth your best. Here, choking happens when we get distracted by our own worries. Thoughts of failure eat up our bandwidth and interrupt our thinking, leaving less working memory to get it done.

Choke Type #2: We overthink things.

The second kind of choking occurs in situations that call for muscle memory, or what researchers call procedural memory. Sinking a putt, hitting a homer, or making that free throw are all prime examples. Here, focusing on your inner process of doing the task, which scientists call explicit monitoring, screws things up by interfering with the automatic nature of the task. 

One study looked at both kinds of choking. Participants were asked to swing a baseball bat at virtual reality pitches. Half the participants were Division 1-A college baseball players who had been playing for most of their lives. The other half had played on a recreational league in the past year, but otherwise didn’t have much experience.

In the first experiment, the researchers distracted each batter by asking them to identify whether a short tone played while they swung at the ball was high or low. For the novice players, the distraction worsened their performance because it ate up their bandwidth and interfered with thinking about how to hit the ball. But the expert athletes performed just as well as usual because the distraction didn’t compete with their finely honed muscle memory.

But the next setup was different. In the second experiment, participants were asked to report whether their bat was moving upwards or downwards at the instant the tone was played, thus forcing them to attend to their movement. This time around, the novice players’ hitting was unchanged, but the experts’ hits suffered. Attending to their swing switched their movement from unconscious to conscious, which in turn screwed them up. In other words, swinging consciously made them swing like novices.

In sum, choking happens in one of two ways. In conscious tasks where you rely on your brain, worry takes up your bandwidth and makes you choke. In unconscious tasks where you rely on your muscles, thinking overrides the process and, once again, delivers you to Chokesville.

Remember the study I mentioned about lonely people choking under self-imposed social pressure? Socializing requires both kinds of memory. You need your working memory to hold a conversation—to listen and think of what to say next—but you also need procedural memory to do simple things like walk up stairs, navigate a crowded room, or pour a drink.

We’ve all felt lonely at times—moving to a new place, stuck at home with a new baby, starting over after getting sober or getting divorced. And it’s precisely when we’re most in need of social connections that we seem to screw them up—we do something weird, say something awkward, or remain silent because we feel self-conscious.

Luckily, no matter your pressured situation—the SAT, the free-throw line, or meeting your new co-workers at orientation, here are 4 tips to move you from choking to coming through in the clutch.

Tip #1: If you’re a novice, take your time. If you’re an expert, get it done.

Sports psychology researchers from the University of Chicago ran an innovative study where they asked golfers to putt using either a standard putter—something they had practiced a million times—or a distorted S-shaped putter—something they had never encountered before. Half of each group was told to take as much time as they needed while the other half was told to putt as quickly as possible while still being accurate.

What happened? With the unfamiliar S-shaped putter, taking as much time as they needed improved performance. But with the standard putter, the group that was told to go quickly performed better—they didn’t rush, but they didn’t have time to overthink things. Makes sense so far.

Now, here’s the thing: once the golfers had the chance to practice with the funny S-shaped putter and got the hang of it, they then started to perform better when told to go quickly.

The upshot? If you’re new to something and really do need to think your way through it, take all the time you need. By contrast, if you’re well-practiced, taking your time can lead to overthinking. Instead, trust your experience and get it done.

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