Full transcript of cognitive scientist Sian Leah Beilock’s TED Talk: Why We Choke Under Pressure and How to Avoid It.
Listen to the MP3 audio here: Why we choke under pressure and how to avoid it by Sian Leah Beilock
Sian Leah Beilock – Cognitive scientist
One of the most humiliating things that you can say about someone is “they choked.” And boy, do I know that feeling.
Growing up, I was an avid athlete. My main sport was soccer, and I was a goalkeeper, which is both the best and the worst position on the field.
You see, when you’re a goalie, you get this special uniform, you get all the glory for a great shot saved, but you also get the grief when you land a shot in the goal.
When you’re a goalie, all eyes are on you, and with that comes the pressure. I distinctly remember one game in high school.
I was playing for the California state team which is part of the Olympic Development Program. I was having a great game until I realized that the national coach was standing right behind me. That’s when everything changed.
In a matter of seconds, I went from playing at the top to the bottom of my ability. Just knowing that I was being evaluated changed my performance and forever how I thought about the mental aspect of how we perform. All of a sudden the ball seemed to go in slow motion, and I was fixated on my every move. The next shot that came I bobbled, but thankfully it didn’t land in the goal.
The shot after that, I wasn’t so lucky: I tipped it right into the net. My team lost; the national coach walked away. I choked under the pressure of those evaluative eyes on me.
Just about everyone does it from time to time — there are so many opportunities, whether it’s taking a test, giving a talk, pitching to a client or that special form of torture I like to call the job interview. But the question is why.
Why do we sometimes fail to perform up to our potential under pressure?
It’s especially bewildering in the case of athletes who spend so much time physically honing their craft. But what about their minds? Not as much. This is true off the playing field as well.
Whether we’re taking a test of giving a talk, it’s easy to feel like we’re ready — at the top of our game — and then perform at our worst when it matters most. It turns out that rarely do we practice under the types of conditions we’re actually going to perform under, and as a result, when all eyes are on us, we sometimes flub our performance.
Of course, the question is: why is this the case? And my experience on the playing field — and in other important facets of my life — really pushed me into the field of cognitive science.
I wanted to know how we could reach our limitless potential. I wanted to understand how we could use our knowledge of the mind and the brain to come up with psychological tools that would help us perform at our best.
So why does it happen? Why do we sometimes fail to perform up to what we’re capable of when the pressure is on? It may not be so surprising to hear that in stressful situations, we worry. We worry about the situation, the consequences, what others will think of us.
But what is surprising is that we often get in our own way precisely because our worries prompt us to concentrate too much. That’s right. We pay too much attention to what we’re doing. When we’re concerned about performing our best, we often try and control aspects of what we’re doing that are best left on autopilot, outside conscious awareness, and as a result, we mess up.
Think about a situation where you’re shuffling down the stairs. What would happen if I asked you to think about what you’re doing with your knee while you’re doing that? There’s a good chance you’d fall on your face.
We as humans only have the ability to pay attention to so much at once, which is why, by the way, it’s not a good idea to drive and talk on the cell phone. And under pressure, when we’re concerned about performing at our best, we can try and control aspects of what we’re doing that should be left outside conscious control. The end result is that we mess up.
My research team and I have studied this phenomenon of overattention, and we call it paralysis by analysis. In one study, we asked college soccer players to dribble a soccer ball and to pay attention to an aspect of their performance that they would not otherwise attend to.
We asked them to pay attention to what side of the foot was contacting the ball. We showed that performance was slower and more error-prone when we drew their attention to the step-by-step details of what they were doing.
When the pressure is on, we’re often concerned with performing at our best, and as a result we try and control what we’re doing to force the best performance. The end result is that we actually screw up. In basketball, the term “unconscious” is used to describe a shooter who can’t miss.
And San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan has said, “When you have to stop and think, that’s when you mess up.”
In dance, the great choreographer, George Balanchine, used to urge his dancers, “Don’t think, just do.” When the pressure’s on, when we want to put our best foot forward, somewhat ironically, we often try and control what we’re doing in a way that leads to worse performance.
So what do we do? Knowing that we have this overactive attention, how do we ensure that we perform at our best? A lot of it comes down to the prefrontal cortex, that front part of our brain that sits over our eyes and usually helps us focus in positive ways. It often gets hooked on the wrong things.
So how do we unhook it? Something as simple as singing a song, or paying attention to one’s pinky toe, as pro golfer Jack Nicklaus was rumored to do, can help us take our mind off those pesky details.
It’s also true that practicing under conditions that we’re going to perform under — closing the gap between training and competition can help us get used to that feeling of all eyes on us. This is true off the playing field as well.