We’ve all experienced it.

Freezing up during an important presentation or speech.

Missing the final free throw or penalty kick that wins the game that matters.

Saying the most foolish things on a big date.

No one is immune. Elementary school kids, professional athletes, politicians, etc. have all choked under pressure. But how do we define choking under pressure? People who are bad at what they do don’t choke under pressure as their poor performance is to be expected. A person chokes when they have full ability to perform well but underperforms in key situations.

So, why do people choke under pressure? And more importantly, how can we prevent it? Here are my theories about this and what I’ve found to be helpful in handling the pressure:

Taking Conscious Control

You become a strong performer by putting in thousands of hours of practice.

The point of practice is to outsource skills from your conscious mind to your subconscious mind so you can perform those skills automatically.

We take for granted many of the skills we outsource to our subconscious. Think of something you’re good at and break it down to the individual skills involved. For example, driving, which is automatic for most people, requires many skills. You need mechanical coordination to work the pedals and steering wheel, visual perception to stay in the lane and avoid accidents, and symbol recognition to read road signs and the various gauges on your dashboard. Let’s not forget the processing power to make quick decisions based on all of that information.

Despite having to use these skills simultaneously while driving, we don’t pay any attention to them. Not only that, we can fiddle with the radio, talk with other people, and even eat and drink while still smoothly driving to our destination.

For any skill, the more your subconscious takes over, the better you’ll be (granted you practice the skill properly). All top performers outsource many of their skills to their subconscious. That’s why it looks effortless, because it is.

So why do strong performers choke?

They take conscious control of skills that they have already outsourced to the subconscious.

In key situations, they want to perform well. They want to be their best so they try to “take control” of their actions consciously, which actually ends up sabotaging their performance.

Think of the last time you choked under pressure? Were you “trying hard” to perform well?

Fix: Trust yourself and the time you’ve put in to practice. You are better off letting your subconscious take control. Of course, if you’ve been practicing bad habits, you will automatically perform in a less optimal way whether or not you consciously take control. To practice properly, get a good coach that will give you specific feedback during your practice sessions.

Revisiting the Past or Projecting into the Future

Think back to your best performances. What was going through your mind? You probably can’t remember thinking about anything. You were just in the moment — doing, not thinking.

Throughout our lives, we collect experiences and file them away for future use. Before high-pressure situations, our brain begins to search for similar experiences. It will review the results from similar situations in the past and then project those into the future. That is why those who have choked in the past tend to choke over and over again.

We can even take on other people’s experiences. If your mind is filled with examples of people being nervous and freezing up during a speech, what do you think will happen right before you give your first speech?

When you flashback to the past to predict your future, you don’t take into account all of the training and practice that has happened since then. It is important to recognize that your past experience is obsolete.

So what can you do?

Fix: Mentally rehearse successful outcomes. All memories are reconstructions, and your brain cannot tell which really happened and which were made up. Collecting positive experiences will create a positive future. This will bring confidence as opposed to anxiety and self-doubt.

Another strategy is to stay present – a lesson I learned when I traveled around the world. To focus on the now, pay attention to the input from your five senses. If you’re playing basketball, notice the feel of the basketball in your hand, the sounds on the court, and the faces of your teammates. When your mind is occupied with the now, it won’t slip into the past or the future.

Attracting Negative Results

The most common phrase people tell themselves when they have to perform in a high stakes situation is:

“Don’t mess up.”

Whether they’re thinking this or saying it out loud, it usually leads to one result:

Messing up.

When you tell yourself not to do something, you cannot help but to imagine doing it. Some people take it one step further and start “catastrophizing.” They imagine how performing poorly in this one event will destroy their lives. When your whole life is on the line, it’s hard to stay relaxed and perform to your best.

So how do you prevent this?

Fix: Focus on what you want to happen. If you are going on a big date, tell yourself to “be charming” as opposed to “don’t be quiet.”

Deep down, we all want to win and do well. That is natural and normal. Many of us have been brought up to believe that increasing the stakes will make us try harder and, therefore, perform better. I encourage you to do the exact opposite — don’t worry about the results.

Do what you’ve practiced to do and let it happen. If you’ve trained hard enough, you’ll win. If you don’t win, train harder next time. Results are in the past and cannot be changed in the present. Focus on what you can do and not what you should have done.

For those of you who want a reminder to carry with you or memorize, here is the 10-second version to stop or prevent choking in any situation:

  • Trust your skills and all of the time you spent practicing.
  • Visualize vividly the result you want before your performance.
  • Focus on your five senses to stay in the present during your performance.
  • Let go of the results and decide what you’ll do next.

What strategies do you use to perform at your best under pressure?

If you found this article helpful, share it with others.

You can minimize that bias through the use of a reliable process and make the most of a bad situation: How to Make Decisions Under Pressure

Featured photo credit: The camera captured this very smokey house fire just before it burst into flames. via Shutterstock

Love this article?