Have you ever frozen in front of a room full of people while giving a speech even though you knew exactly what you had to say? Happens to the best of us. Despite rehearsing for days and committing the speech to memory, sometimes we stutter, stumble, or forget what we had to say altogether. The pressure that comes with high-stakes situations sometimes destroys our ability to do as well as we know we are capable of; something often referred to as choking under pressure.

Choking under pressure is a very common phenomenon affecting many high-achieving students, athletes, and performers. This process is not just mental but physical as well. Choking under pressure in high-stakes situations can trigger neurological reactions that can hamper a person’s performance either through loss of motor function or loss of memory. When we are anxious, our body produces endorphins and adrenaline to calm us. These two hormones act as a mild opiate.

Aimee Daramus, a clinical psychologist, says, “When you’re anxious, you’re also basically a little high and a little stoned.” This neurological response of our body to high-pressure situations causes distraction as well as memory loss which affects our performance.

Recently the phenomenon of choking under pressure

Recently the phenomenon of choking under pressure has been receiving a lot of scientific attention. It’s an area I work with a great deal with my sporting clients in particular.  Psychologists and neurologists are trying to figure out why choking occurs in the first place. According to research, loss-averse and smart people are more likely to crack under pressure.

Loss aversion reflects the tendency in people to avoid losses. So, when the reward for winning is huge, people who are highly loss averse are more likely to crack under pressure than people who are not so loss averse. Similarly, smarter people are also more likely to choke in high tense situations.

Smarter people usually have bigger working memories which allow them to solve complex math problems or understand things better. However, during high-pressure situations, anxiety clogs their working memory, and they are forced to change their game plan in order to solve problems. Not being able to rely on their working memory as they normally do, impedes their performance.

Cracking under pressure is not uncommon. We have all experienced this in one form or the other. However, this doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it. In this article, we are going to share with you six scientifically-backed strategies that will prevent you from choking under pressure.

Giving yourself a positive pep-talk

Self-talk is the inner conversation that we tend to have with ourselves. These inner talks can be both positive and negative. If you want to reduce your feelings of anxiety and stress, we would advise you to engage in positive self-talk more often. Positive conversations with yourself can not only help you be more confident and empowered but can also improve your performance and your mental and physical well-being. Try being your own best friend for once and pull yourself up.

Be a motivational speaker for yourself. Cheer yourself up and remind yourself of your accomplishments and strengths. Research shows the way you talk to yourself can have far-reaching effects on both your body and mind. Negative pep-talk can generate feelings of fear and shame. This is precisely what you don’t want before your performance. Don’t indulge in negativity as it can seriously affect your performance through fatigue, loss of fine motor skills and poor muscle coordination.

Engage in proactive self-talk and try to lift your spirits. Instead of dreading failing, try reminding yourself how well you have been doing in training. Research supports the effects of positive pep-talk on performance. A study on a musical group showed that half-hour sessions of CBT cognitive behavioural therapy, aimed at replacing negative thoughts and energy with positive ones, led to a huge improvement in performance quality.

So, always try and be positive with yourself since “The people who succeed aren’t the ones who avoid failure, they are the ones who respond to failure with optimism.” You can advance your self-talk with the addition of self-hypnosis that you can learn here for free:

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Remind yourself that you are in control

Although it is a good practice to let go of your need to control everything and embrace surrender, sometimes reminding yourself that you do have the ability to influence the outcome is exactly what you need. Research suggests that people who believe they are in control are likely to perform better than those who think they cannot change what will happen next.

Firm control beliefs facilitate performance. A study on football (soccer) players showed that the players who had high control beliefs were able to shoot better penalty kicks than players with low control beliefs. Although you might feel that it might be too easy to be true, changing your perspective does change your performance. Thinking that you are in control improves your overall emotional well-being and avoids choking by reducing your feelings of anxiety and frustration.

Changing your outlook, also known as cognitive reframing, goes a long way in enhancing your performance. According to Professor Marc Jones, “An athlete who perceives participating in the Olympic Games as a tremendous opportunity may feel excited rather than pressured.” There have been many studies which substantiate Jones’s claim that cognitive reframing lowers anxiety and improves performance.

Try training under pressure.

If you ace all your practice exams and do equally well in all your rehearsals but still crack under pressure, the chances are that state-dependent learning is the reason behind your choking. State-dependent learning is a phenomenon according to which people remember or perform better if their physical and mental state is the same as the physical and mental state at the time of learning or practising.

Psychologist Aimee Daramus explains this phenomenon as, “State-dependent learning essentially means that when you learn something while your brain is in one chemical state, you remember it best in the same chemical state.” Usually, when we practice, we do so in quiet and peaceful environments so we can focus better. However, doing so makes us accustomed to performing only in quiet places. Moreover, since we don’t practice in front of a live audience, our bodies don’t produce the same adrenaline and cortisol that they do on a real day.

So, in order to fully prepare yourself, it is a good idea to practice in front of a live audience so you don’t freeze during the real performance. Similarly, make sure you practice solving your practice tests around people so that students around you on the exam day don’t distract you. In short, try practising under the circumstances which are closer to actual so that you are not taken by surprise on a real day.

In another study, college students who were trying to learn gold were told that they were being videotaped and their performance would be analysed by the golf experts later. These students performed much better when they played for a cash prize than the students in the control group with no pressure training.

Don’t overthink

When we are under pressure, we overthink a lot. We go over the minute details and try doing everything step by step systematically. We overcomplicate things that should otherwise come naturally to us by doing so. Sian Beilock, the cognitive scientist, calls this phenomenon “paralysis by analysis”. According to Beilock, “When the pressure is on, we often start focusing on the step-by-step details of our performance to try and ensure an optimal outcome and, as a result, we disrupt what would have otherwise been fluid and natural.

In a study conducted on experienced and beginner football (soccer) players, experienced football players who were told to pay attention to their foot dribbling had a slower and more error prone dribbling than the beginner player who was given the same instructions. This study proves that we are more likely to go wrong when we pay more attention to the step-by-step execution of things. Therefore, think less and do more! You can try distracting yourself in order to stop yourself from thinking way too hard.

Express your opinions before you start

As surprising as it may sound, expressing your feelings before your actual performance can prevent you from cracking under pressure. Scientist tested their hypothesis by conducting a study in which students were instructed to take a math exam and to raise the level of pressure, and they were told that they were being videotaped, which is going to be shared with their friends family later. Before the start of the exam, half of the students were asked to write down their feelings on a piece of paper. The students who expressed how they felt before the exam scored much better than those who did not.

This study confirmed the hypothesis that expressive writing helps with performance. If you want to avoid choking under pressure, try writing down how you feel. Express your opinions and internal thoughts. Does the exam make you anxious? Are you afraid of doing poorly, or are you scared that others are going to make fun of you if you fail?

Let it out on a piece of paper. In fact, you don’t have to express your opinions on a piece of paper only. You can also share your feelings with the friends you trust. When you have expressed your worries, they will no longer have the same power over you, and you may realise how silly they are. Doing so would reduce cognitive pressure and improve your working memory, leading to better performance.

Learn to deal with stress

One way you can deal with stress is by changing how you see it. Instead of seeing stress as “draining”, look at it as “enhancing”. Billie-Jean King says that “stress is a privilege“. Change in your perspective of stress can actually change the way your body deals with it. So next time you are feeling anxious before your big performance, don’t try and calm down your body. Try to convince your body that this anxiousness and heart racing is a sign of your body warming up for the big show.

You can develop different strategies to deal with the stress that might become a hindrance to your performance. You can give yourself positive self-talk or share your feelings with trusted someone. Whatever works for you. Everyone is different, and all strategies may not work for you. Try and find the strategy that works the best for you for coping with stress and stick with it.

Rationalise the event

Before you make your performance a matter of life and death, put your big moment into perspective. Seeing your performance as a life-altering event can easily overwhelm you and increase your chances of cracking under pressure. Remember, the outcome of your performance has nothing to do with your identity. If you lose, this doesn’t make you a loser. Lara Gut-Behrami, the skiing champion of 2020, said: “It’s just a victory; it doesn’t change your life. There are more important things.”

Adopt the same attitude towards things. Acknowledge that setbacks are a part of life, and this will allow you to bounce back from setbacks more quickly. Dawn Stanley, the basketball coach, advises athletes to use the 24-hour rule. According to the rule, athletes have only 24 hours to celebrate their victory or agonise over their defeat. Rationalising the event and reframing your perspective can go a long way in minimising the effects of a single performance and making you more confident in yourself. So, always remember that it’s just a game or a test. Don’t let your stress overwhelm your ability to perform well.

Final Word

Everyone is vulnerable to choking under pressure. Fortunately, we can use a few practices and strategies to avoid this. Try out the summarised tips and see if they work for you. In our experience, expressive writing, practising under pressure and putting the event into perspective work best to prevent choking under pressure. Even if you do choke, remember that it is not the world’s end. You may feel ashamed and embarrassed but consider this as a learning opportunity. Takes this opportunity to learn how to deal with pressure better or even navigate better when pressure cracks you the next time.


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