Why We Choke Under Pressure and How to Avoid It: Sian Leah Beilock (Transcript)

Sian Leah Beilock

Full transcript of cognitive scientist Sian Leah Beilock’s TED Talk: Why We Choke Under Pressure and How to Avoid It.

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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.

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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.

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