How to Prevent "Choking" Under Pressure

You’ve practiced. You are ready to give that speech, or play that piano recital or take that test. Yet when the pressure is on, you flounder. Your mouth goes dry and your throat tightens when you are handed the microphone. Your fingers become like sausages when you sit down at the piano. Your draw a blank when you look at the questions on the test.

It’s called choking. Choking is defined as – not performing at optimum capacity under pressure. It's not the anxiety that results from not being prepared. It's about freezing up even though you have practiced or studied and are ready to perform.

It’s real. We choke under pressure due to the effect of stress on our thought processes. Some of us are more prone to it than others, but there are research-supported techniques you can use to prevent it.


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    Journal before a stressful event. Writing down your thoughts when you are facing a stressful situation, clears away the anxious thoughts and regulates the stress hormones.
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    Graze on real food. Your brain is a 3 lb. hog. It eats most of what you eat. This means your food dramatically affects your brain function. Sugar spikes and cells gummed up with the wrong kind of fats (heated, hydrogenated fats and too much saturated fat) reduce brain power. When you need to perform well, graze on small amounts of good food, mostly vegetables and lean proteins throughout the day. Avoid sugary, processed foods. This will provide a steady stream of nutrients for the brain. Also be sure to drink at least 8 glasses of water.
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    Meditate and pray. Research shows these practices calm your soul and heal your mind. Stress damages your memory, your motor skills and your ability to make decisions. Ultimately, this will affect your ability to perform at optimum capacity.
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    Speak positive affirmation. Words have power. We are continually carrying on conversations with ourselves. If we speak positive things to ourselves it stokes our confidence. Confidence improves performance and makes it less likely that we will be choked by anxiety.
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    Create words that poise you for action (but not too many). In one study, some skilled golfers were instructed to perform putts in three different ways. Players in the first group focused on three words related to physical technique (such as “head,” “weight” and “arms”); the second group focused on three words that had nothing to do with the putt (for example, “red,” “blue” and “green”); and the third group focused on a single word that described the putting motion (such as “smooth”).
    • Initially, the golfers putted in a low-pressure situation, and most of them did well. The pressure was increase by offering a money reward for performing well. Major differences surfaced between the 3 groups. Those who were utilizing just one word – smooth – performed better than those who were using a number of words to monitor their performance.
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    Practice under pressure. Ratcheting up the pressure at your practice sessions is the best way to avoid choking when it counts. Before making a speech, practice in front of a video camera and let a friend review it. Play a sport with someone more skilled than you and ask for feedback. This will trigger the anxiety that you are likely to experience during the actual performance. Exposure beforehand will diminish the stress-response when the time comes.
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    Don't self-monitor. The part of our brain that is most involved in learning a new task is the cerebral cortex. When you play a piece of music, rehearse a speech or practice a sport over and over again, you gradually transfer the control of that activity from the cerebral cortex to another area of the brain – the cerebellum.
    • To perform well, you need to stay in the cerebellum supported “zone”. If you are continually ‘checking your progress’ you are engaging another part of the brain. This will bog you down and choke you. Too much self-monitoring hinders performance.


  • If you want to perform optimally, prepare your mind, your emotions and your body and when the time comes to perform, just do it. And do it with all your heart.

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Categories: Public Speaking