Why We Choke Under Pressure—Plus How to Stop

Choking under pressure happens to everyone from professional athletes to ten-year-olds taking a math test. Even socially awkward moments have their roots in choking, recent research shows. This week on the Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen reveals why we choke and how to come through in the clutch.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #156

Tip #2: Focus outward on the goal, not inward on the mechanics or the worry.

Both types of choke can be remedied by focusing outward. Rather than focusing on your internal worry or your internal process, focus on what’s in front of you—the math test, the basketball net, or the person you’re talking to.

This is a technique from social anxiety treatment called task-focused attention. Essentially, it’s turning your attention away from your internal monologue (“Am I doing this right? Do I look weird? Act casual, act casual.”) and instead focusing on your goal.

Tip #3: Practice not just the action, but the anxiety.

We all get a little self-conscious when we know we’re being watched, whether we’re lining up the penalty kick or just trying to calculate the tip while our friends wait. But we also get self-conscious when we watch ourselves.

So get used to being observed. Practice your task—whether a putt or a job talk—in front of an audience. Practice your big presentation in the conference room but don’t pull the shades—let everyone walking by see in. Practice your free throw when your local court is the most crowded, not after everyone has gone home. If none of those are possible, videotape yourself. It will make you self-conscious, but that’s the point. Practice while feeling a little anxious, and you’ll come through much more effectively when you’re feeling a lot anxious.

Tip #4: Distract yourself…but only if you can rely on your muscle memory.

Brains really cannot multitask, so if your performance is physical, like making that putt or kicking that field goal, distracting yourself with, for example, random pop songs is ideal to achieve what researchers call optimal inattention.” Focus intently on the song, and likely you simply won’t be able to pay attention to your worries. This allows you to ignore your overthinking and let your muscle memory get on with what it knows how to do.

In short, if your task is in the muscles, distract. If it’s in the brain, refrain.

But if your task does take brainpower, like a math test, distraction isn’t a good go-to. In these cases, distraction will take up more of your bandwidth because now you’re worrying and humming Sia’s “Chandelierand monitoring to see if it’s working and wondering how on earth she got away with rhyming the totally not-rhyming words of “chandelier” and “exist.” With all that in your brain, things probably won’t go so well.

In short, if your task is in the muscles, distract. If it’s in the brain, refrain.

Whether your next big moment is on the links, on the court, or simply at a party where you’re hoping not to end up wearing the cheese dip, focus on the goal and get it done. You can do it. And even if you choke, don’t despair. As John McEnroe, who famously choked in the 1984 French Open, once said, "We all choke, but winners know how to handle choking better than losers." 

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.