You’ve seen it happen before. Maybe you’ve even experienced the stomach-churning, brain-in-hyperdrive feeling yourself. Whether it’s the professional missing those easy free throws on the basketball court or the professional sweating through an important presentation in the conference room — even the best performers choke under pressure.
The expertise and skillful command of these bright talents are exactly what should be helping them thrive in such conditions. All that hard work that brought them to where they are now should help them kick it up a notch and spur amazing feats. Instead, it’s these outstanding capabilities that set them up for failure in the clutch.
While star performers should be best equipped to handle pressure, the interesting paradox is that they might be the most prone to buckling.
The Mental Game of Performance Pressure
The main issue when it comes to buckling under pressure is what’s going on inside your head.
The stress of wanting to do really well makes you more self-conscious, turning over your brain to critical thoughts driven by worry, fear, and anxiety. As your self-scrutiny goes into overdrive, focus becomes a force of destruction that interferes with your natural and practiced flow as you start paying too much attention to what you’re doing
Those thoughts are in fact taking up precious brain space as they start filling up your working memory. Working memory plays a fundamental role in how we think and function. It’s a complex kind of short-term memory system used to reason and calculate, that:
maintains, in an active state, a limited amount of information with immediate relevance to the task at hand while preventing distractions from the environment and irrelevant thoughts…. If the ability of working memory to maintain task focus is disrupted, performance may suffer.
Your working memory, just like a computer’s memory, is a limited resource. And when you start letting anxious, worried thoughts intrude in situations of performance pressure, you deplete major mental resources that could be better used anywhere else than overthinking your every move.
Risking Your Advantage
When Sian Beilock, a psychologist at the University of Chicago examined the choking phenomenon, she found it was the brightest people with the most capacity who are also the most susceptible. People who are not only used to performing very well are also often “[t]hose with more cognitive horsepower … who tend to over-think and analyse.”
First, she split study participants into two groups according to how they’d done on working memory tests. The participants then performed easy and difficult sets of math problems in two conditions. The low-pressure condition was presented as a practice session, while the high-pressure condition was modeled after real-world sources of extrinsic pressure, with situations involving monetary rewards, peer pressure, and social evaluation.
The high-pressure condition undermined the superior attentional capacity that the higher working memory group (HWM) had over the lower working memory group (LWM). In fact, as the researchers summarized, it “completely eliminated the advantage that HWMs enjoyed over LWMs on the high-demand problems in the low-pressure situation.”
People who would normally have been better performers lost their edge.
How to Deal With the Pressure
Strangely enough, it’s by loosening your mental grip and letting control go that you can regain it. As Beilock explains, “[I]t’s better if an activity you have performed thousands of times runs on autopilot.”
When your anxious thoughts are on the verge of becoming distracting mental baggage, try these three methods to get back into the flow and do what you already know how to do best:
1. Practice, practice, practice.
You’ve spent countless hours developing your talents — but how much time have you spent you practiced performing those talents in stressful situations?
As Beilock writes: “Even practising under mild levels of stress can prevent you from choking when high levels of stress come around.” This is why lawyers practice their courtroom arguments in front of other lawyers, why standardized test prep includes timed practice exams, why musicians test out the stage. Practice getting out of practice-mode.
2. Write out your anxieties.
Beilock also suggests writing down your performance fears. This can have the effect of clearing your working memory from getting all tangled up in overthinking. When anxious students, for example, wrote down their fears before taking tests, their scores improved from B-s to B+s.
3. Distract yourself.
Distract yourself a little to prevent overthinking. Simple, superstitious-seeming rituals like wearing your lucky socks or wiggling your ear before going on stage can help center your thoughts before high-pressure tasks. Beilock also mentions singing a song or counting backwards (assuming you’re not a singer or in a high-pressure math situation) can ease the mind from drowning in that distracting inner monologue of criticalness.
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Remembering that so much of performance — in any field — is a mental game and understanding how to better play that game is the real competitive advantage.
It’s easy to revert to that persistent myth that high pressure motivates the best performance, even though evidence like Beilock’s research shows this exactly not to be the case. Struggle and strain are a natural part of gaining mastery, but part of that learning process is also figuring out when it makes sense to give in and trust yourself instead of concentrating so much on what’s at stake that you lose that hard-earned confidence.
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