Why Some People Choke Under Pressure

 

You’ve spent all night preparing for this presentation. It’s a make-or-break situation; either you hit the ball out of the park, or you make a less than favourable impression. You really don’t want it to be the latter. 

When you get up and start introducing yourself, though, you know something doesn’t feel right. You end up stuttering, forgetting your arguments, and ruining the whole thing. Embarrassed, frustrated, and disappointed, you finish up and sit back down. 

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All of us have had an experience similar to that. When the stakes are high, the pressure gets to you, and even if you know you could ace it, you choke. It could have been a crucial job interview or a sales pitch for a high-billed client. The fact is, how you perform under pressure has everything to do with your mental and emotional state as you go into the moment. 

Professional athletes, for one, know this. Preparation and training alone aren’t enough. You need to know how to stay calm and how to control your thoughts and feelings when the moment comes. You can’t do this, though, without first understanding what happens to you, mentally and emotionally, under pressure. 

P.S. Control your thoughts and emotions, not the other way around; master emotional self-control techniques with SSA Academy’s WSQ course on applying emotional competence to manage oneself at work!

 

 

1. Choking & panicking

 

For simplicity’s sake, let’s return to the example of the important presentation. The last thing you want to do in the few minutes before a major presentation is panic. You can’t stay calm and collected if you’re going crazy thinking about all the “what if?” scenarios that could happen, or obsessing about all the little details. What if…

  • My slides don’t work?
  • My pointer malfunctions? 
  • I blank out? 
  • I forgot to edit that typo I saw last night on slide 15? 

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Allowing your mind to go off down the rabbit hole of “things that could go wrong” is the best way to scare yourself into panicking just before your moment. When that happens, you start doubting whether you can even do an excellent job of presenting or not. You begin to question your competence and become less and less confident of whether you can do a good job. 

The more you entertain the “what if” thoughts, the likelier it is that they become a reality. In other words, your panic will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

 

 

2. Choking & mental presence

 

Thinking about outcomes (past & future)

In any given high-pressure situation, you should be focusing your concentration entirely on being present in the moment. Allowing your mind to wander into the past or the future can disrupt your concentration. 

When this happens, instead of focusing on the next few minutes, you’re thinking about how everyone will react once it’s over. Will they love it or hate it, or will they not care? Or maybe you’d be thinking about how a fellow co-worker aced her presentation and impressed everyone. It could even be those few instances in the past when you tried publicly speaking and completely trashed the whole thing. 

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Again, doing so puts unnecessary stress and pressure or yourself—more so than there already is. If the stakes are already high enough, you don’t need to add to them by reminding yourself of things that happened in the past or things that happen in the future. Instead, train yourself to forget everything else and focus on the present. 

 

Don’t think

There are countless movie scenes where the main character is about to perform a task that they’ve been consistently messing up before this. Everything goes into slow motion, the noise fades out, and you can only hear the character’s breathing. They’re tuning everything out; turning all of their attention with a laser-like focus into the moment and filtering out all else. Ultimately, they manage to pull it off with flying colours, and the crowd erupts into thunderous cheers. 

Real life, of course, won’t be so dramatic, but the lesson remains the same. “Don’t think. Just do.” How many times have you heard that advice given to someone about to make an important play? It might sound incredulous to stop thinking at the most crucial time to think. The reason for this, though, is simple.

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If you’ve trained and prepared yourself enough for the current moment, everything should come as second nature to you. Your movements, actions, and words all come without you thinking. In other words, you know what to do, and you know how to win. The minute you start to overthink things, though, you lose it.

This is often what causes athletes to choke under pressure. In your case, it might the presentation you were up all night preparing for, or that professional certification exam you’ve been studying for weeks in advance. Whatever the case, learning to cultivate the mental presence required to perform in the moment, regardless of pressure, will make a massive difference to you. 

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