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Top 3 Reasons Why You Choke Under Pressure

Top 3 Reasons Why You Choke Under Pressure

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

More by this author

Robert Chen

Executive Coach

10 Greatest Success Tips in Both Life and Business The Downside of Being an Expert What You Can Do Every Night To Make A More Productive Tomorrow 13 Lessons Life Has Taught Me Top 3 Reasons Why You Choke Under Pressure

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Last Updated on October 18, 2018

50+ Best Motivational Quotes To Prepare You For Any Challenges In Life

50+ Best Motivational Quotes To Prepare You For Any Challenges In Life

Life is filled with highs and lows —happiness and struggles that will test your resilience and integrity, push you to overcome challenges and leave you with lessons that will make you even stronger on your way up.

It’s the way you feel and think about yourself, including your expectations and beliefs about what is possible to you, greatly determines everything that happens to you.

It all starts with your thoughts. When you change your thoughts, you transform the quality of your life. (Right, Nancy’s story is a typical example!)

Below is a list of the best motivational quotes to inspire you to start your day with a blast:

Quotes for self-assurance

1. Don’t downgrade your dream just to fit your reality, upgrade your conviction to match your destiny.

    2. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.

      3. You are confined only by the walls you build yourself.

        4. The man who has confidence in himself gains the confidence of others

          5. You attract what you are, not what you want. If you want great, then be great.

            6. It’s not who you are that holds you behind, it’s who you think your are not.

              Quotes about positivity

              7. Stop being afraid of what could go wrong and think of what could go right.

                8. You should never regret anything in life. If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it is experience.

                  9. Falling down is an accident, staying down is a choice.

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                    10. If you have the power to make someone happy, do it. The world needs more of that.

                      11. Always believe that something wonderful is about to happen.

                        12. Don’t be afraid to give up the good and go for great.

                          13. Remember that life’s greatest lessons are usually learned from worst times and from the worst mistakes.

                            Quotes for work and success

                            14. Don’t talk, just act. Don’t say, just show. Don’t promise, just prove.

                              15. Never stop doing great just because someone doesn’t give you credit.

                                16. Discipline is doing what needs to be done, even if you don’t want to.

                                  17. Work while they sleep. Learn while they party. Save while they spend. Live like they dream.

                                    18. The key to success is to focus our conscious mind on things we desire, not things we fear.

                                      19. Never apologize for having high standards, people who really want to be in your life will rise to meet them.

                                        20. If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.

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                                          21. Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it, time will pass anyway.

                                            22. Don’t fear failure. Fear being in the exact same place next year as you are today.

                                              23. A hill is just another opportunity to leave your competition behind.

                                                24. Don’t quit. You’re already in pain. You’re already hurt. Get a reward from it.

                                                  25. Hustle until you no longer need to introduce yourself.

                                                    26. You didn’t come this far only to come this far.

                                                      27. Be selective in your battles for sometimes peace is better than being right.

                                                        28 If we keep doing what we are doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’re getting.

                                                          29. You will never know your limits until you push yourself to them.

                                                            30. Do what you have to do until you can do what you want to do.

                                                              31. The man on top of the mountain didn’t fall there.

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                                                                32. If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough.

                                                                  33. If you can’t handle stress, you won’t manage success.

                                                                    34. Don’t be pushed by your problems, be led by your dreams.

                                                                      35. Don’t mistake silence for weakness. Smart people don’t plan big moves out loud.

                                                                        36. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

                                                                          37. Obsessed is the word the lazy use to describe dedicated.

                                                                            38. You become who you spend your time with.

                                                                              39. Be stubborn about your goals and flexible about your methods.

                                                                                40. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

                                                                                  41. If you don’t build your dreams, someone else will hire you to build theirs.

                                                                                    42. Between stimulus and response is our greatest power –the freedom to choose.

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                                                                                      43. What comes easy won’t last, what lasts won’t come easy.

                                                                                        44. Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits.

                                                                                          45. Work until your idols become your rivals.

                                                                                            Quotes about money

                                                                                            46. Formal education will make you a living. Self-education will make you a fortune.

                                                                                              47. I create new enemies every day, it’s called business.

                                                                                                48. When you have a Million Dollar vision, don’t surround yourself with 1 cent minds.

                                                                                                  49. You can’t get rich thinking poor.

                                                                                                    50. Doing what is comfortable is rarely profitable.

                                                                                                      51. If you can count your money, work harder.

                                                                                                        If you find yourself feeling lost and frustrated, it’s never too late to change things up. Check out this guide:

                                                                                                        How to Start Over and Reboot Your Life When It Seems Too Late

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