So what we can do to prevent it?
- Distraction. As Jonah explains, choking is frequently caused by thinking when we shouldn’t be thinking. Counting backwards from 100 has been shown to occupy the conscious mind and allow competitors to perform uninterrupted by worries.
- Adapting to self-awareness. By repeatedly being videotaped while performing, subjects adapted to being watched and no longer found themselves choking. So regular practice in front of an audience (or whatever type of pressure you expect to deal with) can reduce anxiety.
- Be quick: Don’t rush, but prolonging the challenge allows anxiety to build up. Err on the side of being quick to head off the overthinking that can hurt your efforts.
- Focus on the goal or target, not mechanics: If you’re doing something physical, like playing golf, don’t get hung up on the intricacies of your swing. That will be your undoing. Concentrate on what you want to achieve.
- Don’t focus on high stakes, think about the big picture: From Annie Murphy Paul: “Reminding yourself of the high stakes makes intuitive sense as a motivational strategy—but it will actually impede your performance. Instead of spurring you to new heights, it’s likely to increase anxiety and undermine your confidence. Research shows that reminding yourself how unimportant the event is in the big scheme of things is a better tactic…”
- Find something to focus on: Letting your mind wander and jump about isn’t a good idea. Focusing on something specific can tame a worried mind.
- Try a short mantra: A one, two or three word phrase you repeat to yourself can help you focus. Across the board, talking to yourself can increase performance.
- Allow some anxiety in when you practice: Ironically, training with a little worry can prevent you from choking when it counts: “It is concluded that practicing perceptual-motor tasks under mild levels of anxiety can also prevent choking when performing with higher levels of anxiety.”
- Know how to deal with stress in general: I’ve put together a compilation of stress-busting strategies here.
- Have fun. The difference between a fun challenge and stressful work is often just a feeling of control. Pursue mastery and don’t think so much about this one moment. Focus on growth, not proving self-worth.
For more on the subject, check out Sian Beilock’s book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.
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