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Top 3 Reasons Why You Choke Under Pressure

Top 3 Reasons Why You Choke Under Pressure
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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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More by this author

Robert Chen

Executive Coach

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Last Updated on July 20, 2021

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)
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You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.

Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.

Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:

1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically

According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.

“Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor

Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:

Warming up

If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.

If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.

Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:

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  1. Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
  2. Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
  3. Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.

Stay hydrated

Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.

To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.

Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.

Meditate

Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.

Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.

Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.

Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:

2. Focus on your goal

One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.

Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’

Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.

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Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.

If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.[1]

3. Convert negativity to positivity

There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?

‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’

It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.

Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”

Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.

Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:

4. Understand your content

Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.

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However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.

“No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor

Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.

Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.[2]

One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.

5. Practice makes perfect

Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.

In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.

Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

6. Be authentic

There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.

Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.

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Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.

To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.

With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.

Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:

7. Post speech evaluation

Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.

Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation

We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.

You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.

Improve your next speech

As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:

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  • How did I do?
  • Are there any areas for improvement?
  • Did I sound or look stressed?
  • Did I stumble on my words? Why?
  • Was I saying “um” too often?
  • How was the flow of the speech?

Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.

If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too:

Reference

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