Stop Yourself Choking Under Pressure

John McEnroe

“We all choke. Winners know how to handle choking better than losers.” – John McEnroe


imagesIn the opening round of the 1996 Masters Greg Norman shot a course-record 63. Three days later he played the same 18 holes in 15 strokes more. In the process he blew a six-shot lead over Nick Faldo and converted it into a five-shot deficit. Faldo had played brilliantly, but brilliance alone would not have been enough to catch the Great White Shark had he not collapsed under pressure. It was the yips. Greg Norman choked.

But it’s not just athletes who can choke under pressure. Business leaders at the very top of their own game also worry about choking when delivering a sales pitch, presentation or speech, or leading an important meeting. In January 2014, movie director, Michael Bay famously suffered a meltdown during Samsung’s CES event. When the teleprompter failed to work, his words failed him, his palms became sweaty, he was completely overwhelmed and shortly after making his entrance, he walked off stage.

The phenomenon of choking under pressure, where an athlete is suddenly impaired by intense anxiety has attracted both popular and scientific interest. To begin with, the symptoms of choking include tense muscles, shaky limbs, rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, butterflies in the stomach, racing thoughts, and feelings of panic. In addition, someone who is choking may have the feeling they can’t complete the action they intend. Golfers may feel they can’t complete a putting stroke, a dart player may feel they cannot let go of the dart, and a famous director may feel he can’t talk.

Rather than being a personality problem, choking is regarded as an attentional one. Specifically, the choker focuses on themselves, rather than focusing on the task at hand. This means that anyone, regardless of their personality can suffer from choking. But it also means that there are a number of strategies that you can adopt to help you control performance anxiety and prevent choking. Here are six suggestions:

Control the controllables: In advance of your event, write a list of the things you can control, for example being familiar with the content of your presentation, ensuring you have a good diet the day before your presentation, a list of items you need to take with you to the venue. Then write a list of reasonable uncontrollables, for example IT glitches, a larger audience than you were expecting, video cameras recording, heavy traffic or delays. The items in the controllables column are the things you can do something about. Make sure you are absolutely prepared and all the controllables on your list are buttoned down. The items in the uncontrollables column are the things you have no control over. What you do have control over, however is how you respond to any of these possibilities. Formulate a plan for how you will respond to each of the items in the uncontrollables column, should they occur. For example, you cannot control for IT glitches but if you are completely familiar with your content, it won’t matter. If Michael Bay had prepared thoroughly and was familiar with his material, it wouldn’t have mattered that the teleprompter failed to work.

Shift the focus away from yourself and your fear of what could go wrong: Close your eyes and create a clear, detailed picture of your audience’s reaction to your presentation. Imagine them laughing and cheering by using all of your senses to build an evocative image. Imagine how your audience feels and how good you feel. Visualize success.

Develop a pre-performance routine and stick to it: Most athletes use pre-performance routines, getting themselves in an optimal state by systematically running through preparatory thoughts and actions before an event. By concentrating on each step of the routine, you will learn to control anxiety by focusing on only what you can control.

Encourage yourself: When sports performers are anxious, their self talk can become hostile and negative. This behavior never helps and can even make the situation worse. In fact, anyone  can fall victim to negative self talk. Talk to yourself with two aims: to encourage yourself for your effort, and instruct yourself on what to do next.

Lower your stress levels: Some people find practicing controlled breathing helps them relax and redirects their thoughts when they turn negative. If it helps you, practice some kind of relaxation technique every day, regardless of whether you have an upcoming performance, so that skill is there for you when you need it. Furthermore, Amy Cuddy’s research on body language and its effect on hormones suggests you can reduce levels of stress hormones by standing in a Wonder Woman pose for just two minutes.

Get excited: Recent research suggests trying to calm down can be an ineffective method for some people and that getting excited, rather than relaxing can improve their performance in an anxiety-inducing activity. Alison Wood Brooks from Harvard business school suggests people should try to focus on potential opportunities, saying, “It really does pay to be positive, and people should say they are excited. Even if they don’t believe it at first, saying ‘I’m excited’ out loud increases authentic feelings of excitement.”

Your success at delivering a knockout pitch, presentation, speech, or leading an important meeting can depend largely on you knowing how and when to either psych yourself up or calm yourself down. Have a go at some or all of the suggestions above , see what works for you and let us know by leaving a comment or adding any suggestions of your own.