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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.

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Robert Chen

Executive Coach

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Last Updated on July 8, 2020

How to Say No When You Say Yes Too Often

How to Say No When You Say Yes Too Often

Do you say yes so often that you realize you aren’t really happy about this, wondering how to say no to people?

For years, I was a serial people pleaser. Known as someone who would step up, I would gladly make time especially when it came to volunteering for certain causes. I proudly carried this role all through grade school, college, even through law school. For years, I thought saying “no” meant I would disappoint a good friend or someone I respected.

But somewhere along the way, I noticed I wasn’t quite living my life. Instead, I seem to have created a schedule that was a strange combination of meeting the expectations of others, what I thought I should be doing, and some of what I actually wanted to do. The result? I had a packed schedule that left me overwhelmed and unfulfilled.

It took a long while but I learned the art of saying no. Saying ‘no’ meant I no longer catered fully to everyone else’s needs and could make more room for what I really wanted to do. Instead of cramming too much in, I chose to pursue what really mattered. I started to manage my time more around my own needs and interests. When that happened, I became a lot happier. And guess what? I hardly disappointed anyone.

The Importance of Saying No

When you learn the art of saying ‘no,’ you begin to look at the world differently. Rather than seeing all of the things you could or should be doing (and aren’t doing), you start to look at how to say yes to what’s important.

In other words, you aren’t just reacting to what life throws at you. You seek the opportunities that move you to where you want to be.

Successful people aren’t afraid to say no. Oprah Winfrey considered one of the most successful women in the world confessed that it was much later in life when she learned how to say no. Even after she had become internationally famous, she felt she had to say yes to virtually everything. It was only when she realized that after years of struggling with saying no, I finally got to this question: “What do I want?”

Being able to say no also helps you manage your time better.

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Warren Buffett views no as essential to his success. He said,

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

When I made ‘no’ a part of my toolbox, I drove more of my own success focusing on fewer things and doing them well.

How We Are Pressured to Say Yes

It’s no wonder a lot of us find it hard to say ‘no.’

From an early age, we are conditioned to say ‘yes.’ We said yes probably hundreds of time in order to graduate from high school and then get into college. We said yes to find work. We said yes get a promotion. We said yes to find love and then yes again to stay in a relationship. We said yes to find and keep friends.

We say yes because it feels better to help someone. We say yes because it can seem like the right thing to do. We say yes because we think that is key to success. And we say yes because the request might come from someone who is hard to resist like the boss.

And that’s not all. The pressure to say yes doesn’t just come from others. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. At work, we say yes because we compare ourselves to others who seem to be doing more than we are. Outside of work, we say yes because we feel guilty we aren’t doing enough to spend time with family or friends.

The message no matter where we turn is nearly always, “You really could be doing more.” The result? When people ask us for our time, we are heavily conditioned to say yes.

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How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty

Deciding to add the word ‘no’ to your toolbox is no small thing. Perhaps you already say ‘no’ but not as much as you would like. Maybe you have an instinct that if you were to learn the art of ‘no’ that you could finally create more time for things you care about. But let’s be honest, using the word ‘no’ doesn’t come easily for many people.

The 3 Rules of Thumbs for Saying No

1. You Need to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

Let’s face it. It is hard to say no. Setting boundaries around your time especially you haven’t done it much in the past will feel awkward.

2. You Are the Air Traffic Controller of Your Time

Remember that you are the only one who understands the demands for your time. Think about it, who else knows about all of the demands on your time? No one. Only you are at the center of all of these requests. are the only one that understands what time you really have.

3. Saying ‘No’ Means Saying ‘Yes’ to Something That Matters

When we decide not to do something, it means we can say yes to something else. You have a unique opportunity to decide how you spend your precious time.

6 Ways to Start Saying No

Incorporating that little word ‘no’ into your life can be transformational. Turning some things down will mean you can open doors to what really matters. Here are some essential tips to learn the art of no:

1. Check in With Your Obligation Meter

One of the biggest challenges to saying ‘no’ is a feeling of obligation. Do you feel you have a responsibility to say yes and worry that saying no reflect poorly on you?

Ask yourself whether you truly have the duty to say yes. Check your assumptions or beliefs about whether you carry the responsibility to say yes. Turn it around and instead ask what duty you owe to yourself.

2. Resist the Fear of Missing out (FOMO)

Do you have a fear of missing out (FOMO)? FOMO can follow us around in so many ways. At work, we volunteer our time because we fear we won’t move ahead. In our personal lives, we agree to join the crowd because FOMO even while we ourselves aren’t enjoying the fun.

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Check in with yourself. Are you saying yes because of FOMO or because you really want to say yes? More often than not, running after fear doesn’t make us feel better.

3. Check Your Assumptions About What It Means to Say ‘No’

Do you dread the reaction you will get if you say no? Often, we say ‘yes’ because we worry about how others will respond or the consequences of saying no or because of the consequences. We may be afraid to disappoint others or think we will lose respect from others. We often forget how much we are disappointing ourselves along the way.

Keep in mind that saying ‘no’ can be exactly what is needed to send the right message that you have limited time. In the tips below, you will see how to communicate your no in a gentle and loving way. You might disappoint someone initially but drawing a boundary can bring you the freedom you need so that you can give freely of yourself when you truly want to.

4. When the Request Comes In, Sit on It

Sometimes, when we are in the moment, we instinctively agree. The request might make sense at first. Or we typically have said yes to this request in the past.

Give yourself a little time to reflect on whether you really have the time, or can do the task properly. You may decide the best option is to say ‘no.’ There is no harm in giving yourself the time to decide.

5. Communicate Your ‘No’ with Transparency and Kindness

When you are ready to tell someone no, communicate your decision clearly. The message can be open and honest to ensure the recipient that your reasons have to do with your limited time.

Resist the temptation not to respond or communicate all. But do not feel obligated to provide a lengthy account about why you are saying no.

A clear communication with a short explanation is all that is needed. I have found it useful to tell people that I have many demands and need to be careful with how I allocate my time. I will sometimes say I really appreciate that they came to me and for them to check in again if the opportunity arises another time.

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6. Consider How to Use a Modified ‘No’

If you are under pressure to say yes but want to say no, you may want to consider downgrading a “yes” to a “yes but…” giving you an opportunity to condition your agreement to what works best for you.

Sometimes, the condition can be to do the task but not in the time frame that was originally requested. Or perhaps you can do part of what has been asked.

Final Thoughts

Beginning right now, you can change how you respond to requests for your time. When the request comes in, take yourself off autopilot where you might normally say yes.

Use the request as a fresh request to draw a healthy boundary around your time. Pay particular attention to when you place certain demands on yourself. If you are the one placing the demand on yourself, try to evaluate the demand as if it were coming from somewhere else.

Try it now. Say no to a friend who continues to take advantage of your goodwill. Or, draw the line with a workaholic colleague and tell them you will complete the project but not by working all weekend. Or, tell someone in your family you can’t loan them money again because they never paid you back the last time. You’ll find yourself much happier.

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Featured photo credit: Chris Ainsworth via unsplash.com

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