How to prevent choking

October 8, 2010
Robert Genn

"Choking" is when you know how to do something, do it often, and then, inexplicably 
and royally, you screw up. A golfer, for example, going for a three-foot putt, 
overshoots by seventeen feet, or, worse, gives the ball a dumb little three incher. 

Anyone can choke, but the more mature you are, the more often it can happen. Thinking 
is bad. The more time you have to think, the more likely you are to choke. Quick, 
intuitive thinkers don't choke as often.

Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago psychologist, says it has to do with roadblocks 
in the brain. She's written a book to help people open up their roads. Mostly for 
sporty types and businesspeople, some of her findings apply to us.

Singing helps. Apparently singing distracts the "analysis paralysis" that comes from 
knowing too much. I've found "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" by Noel Coward often does the 
trick and gets me to foreign places as well. For those who can't sing, try humming. 
Humming is like a mantra; it calms the brain. In Beilock's research, people who 
meditate choke less. Did I mention "Whistle while you work"?

Pressure to perform, persistent worries, a guilty conscience and general nervousness 
are all causes of choking. Further, the mere act of trying to increase your control 
over something can backfire, disrupting what was once a fluid, flawless performance.

Pressurized situations apparently deplete that area of your brain (prefrontal cortex) 
that contains what psychologists call "working memory," a sort of mental scratch pad 
and info storage area. With stuff temporarily erased or obscured, it's hard to get it 
back when you need it. 

Another choker Beilock identifies is "stereotype threat." I had a hard time getting 
my head around this one, but I now realize it's a biggie. For example, when someone 
thinks they can't do math because of age, gender, race, or whatever, they often 
can't. It has nothing to do with their natural ability, and all to do with their 
beliefs. Art students who know in their heart they can never do as well as their 
instructors, for whatever reason, won't. It's enough to make you think schools might 
be houses of choking. Come to think of it, maybe it's best to hum your way around the 
course on your own. 

Best regards,


PS: "Highly practiced putts run better when you don't try to control every aspect of 
performance." (Sian Beilock, from "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About 
Getting it Right When You Have To")

Esoterica: Our brains are also in the business of sabotage. Steadfast practice tends 
to stymie the evil eye of sabotage. Further, it's a good idea to groom yourself by 
practicing under a moderate amount of stress. "Think about the journey, not the 
outcome," says Beilock. Having dealt effectively with prior stress makes working with 
high amounts of it easier. On the other hand, no stress at all may cause one to 
"choke by dawdling."