“Just like anyone can choke, anyone can thrive.”

Choking Under Pressure

Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College, has lived and researched choking her entire life.  As a child, Beilock grew up as a competitive athlete and knew first-hand about choking. She then served as a 12-year tenured professor of psychology and researcher at the University of Chicago. Beilock’s research focused on how children and adults perform at their best, particularly under stress.


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All this research and experiential learning enabled Beilock to write Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have To.

Reason We Choke Under Pressure

Beilock has found that we choke under pressure because we monitor ourselves to the point of disruption.  Chocking is, according to Beilock, an “equal opportunity event.”  We all do it…everyone chokes…authority figures, high performers, athletes, bosses, brokers, team leaders, expert and newbie real estate agents.

For everyone, combating performance anxiety is an “equal opportunity event,” according to Beilock, because we all understand our body’s responses to high stakes situations.  Our spiked heart rate or our churning stomach may feel like a negative, choking response but is exactly identical to the spiked heart rate or churning stomach we experience when we’re excited.

Solution – Use Your Body Knowledge to Your Advantage

Beilock says that stressful situations are about interpretation.  “If you interpret (a situation) as a sign you’re going to fail, there’s a good chance you will.  But, if you interpret (that same situation) as a sign that you’re ready to go, that you’re excited, you can perform better.”


Beilock encourages professionals to practice in conditions similar to the ones under which we perform.  “Practice in a way that helps you get ready for the stressful situation.

“If you’re pitching to a client or giving a talk (or negotiating in a bidding war), you’ll look over your materials…and practice delivering your presentation.  We know that if you can mimic what you’re going to experience, you do so much better.”

Beilock continued, “…pitch to a group of friends or…pitch in front of the mirror…anything that gets you used to having eyes on you.”

Write Down Your Thoughts

As you get closer to the “big” day, Beilock believes it is helpful to write down your thoughts. “I would say that there’s a real power in sort of downloading your worries, getting them down on paper.  We know that journaling can be really helpful for reducing stress and reducing some of what’s popping around in your head in the long term.”

Mindfulness exercises also help people focus on the moment, not the consequences.  Dialing in to the moment when the time comes to perform, you’ll be less likely to overly monitor yourself and choke under pressure.

Final Strategy

“Right before the event is not the time to focus or cram,” said Beilock.  “There’s actually a benefit to stepping back right before the thing you’re going to do.”

Beilock believes that the most important thing all of us can do just before we do our thing is to simply be ourselves.  Her last words of wisdom: “Just like anyone can choke, anyone can thrive.”

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