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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

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Last Updated on December 2, 2018

7 Public Speaking Techniques To Help Connect With Your Audience

7 Public Speaking Techniques To Help Connect With Your Audience

When giving a presentation or speech, you have to engage your audience effectively in order to truly get your point across. Unlike a written editorial or newsletter, your speech is fleeting; once you’ve said everything you set out to say, you don’t get a second chance to have your voice heard in that specific arena.

You need to make sure your audience hangs on to every word you say, from your introduction to your wrap-up. You can do so by:

1. Connecting them with each other

Picture your typical rock concert. What’s the first thing the singer says to the crowd after jumping out on stage? “Hello (insert city name here)!” Just acknowledging that he’s coherent enough to know where he is is enough for the audience to go wild and get into the show.

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It makes each individual feel as if they’re a part of something bigger. The same goes for any public speaking event. When an audience hears, “You’re all here because you care deeply about wildlife preservation,” it gives them a sense that they’re not just there to listen, but they’re there to connect with the like-minded people all around them.

2. Connect with their emotions

Speakers always try to get their audience emotionally involved in whatever topic they’re discussing. There are a variety of ways in which to do this, such as using statistics, stories, pictures or videos that really show the importance of the topic at hand.

For example, showing pictures of the aftermath of an accident related to drunk driving will certainly send a specific message to an audience of teenagers and young adults. While doing so might be emotionally nerve-racking to the crowd, it may be necessary to get your point across and engage them fully.

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3. Keep going back to the beginning

Revisit your theme throughout your presentation. Although you should give your audience the credit they deserve and know that they can follow along, linking back to your initial thesis can act as a subconscious reminder of why what you’re currently telling them is important.

On the other hand, if you simply mention your theme or the point of your speech at the beginning and never mention it again, it gives your audience the impression that it’s not really that important.

4. Link to your audience’s motivation

After you’ve acknowledged your audience’s common interests in being present, discuss their motivation for being there. Be specific. Using the previous example, if your audience clearly cares about wildlife preservation, discuss what can be done to help save endangered species’ from extinction.

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Don’t just give them cold, hard facts; use the facts to make a point that they can use to better themselves or the world in some way.

5. Entertain them

While not all speeches or presentations are meant to be entertaining in a comedic way, audiences will become thoroughly engaged in anecdotes that relate to the overall theme of the speech. We discussed appealing to emotions, and that’s exactly what a speaker sets out to do when he tells a story from his past or that of a well-known historical figure.

Speakers usually tell more than one story in order to show that the first one they told isn’t simply an anomaly, and that whatever outcome they’re attempting to prove will consistently reoccur, given certain circumstances.

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6. Appeal to loyalty

Just like the musician mentioning the town he’s playing in will get the audience ready to rock, speakers need to appeal to their audience’s loyalty to their country, company, product or cause. Show them how important it is that they’re present and listening to your speech by making your words hit home to each individual.

In doing so, the members of your audience will feel as if you’re speaking directly to them while you’re addressing the entire crowd.

7. Tell them the benefits of the presentation

Early on in your presentation, you should tell your audience exactly what they’ll learn, and exactly how they’ll learn it. Don’t expect them to listen if they don’t have clear-cut information to listen for. On the other hand, if they know what to listen for, they’ll be more apt to stay engaged throughout your entire presentation so they don’t miss anything.

Featured photo credit: Flickr via farm4.staticflickr.com

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