Why You Choke Under Pressure – And How To Avoid It, Part I

Blowing a high-stakes presentation, flubbing a chance conversation with a senior partner in the elevator, bombing the exam you studied months for – choking under pressure is one, really painful and two, usually means lost opportunities.

What’s funny is that while it was our brainpower that’s instrumental in getting us to that point of achievement, it’s also the culprit that sabotages our performance. (Okay, it’s not that funny.)

The good news is you can train your brain to help, not hurt, your cause. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing three mental toughness techniques you can practice to improve your performance under stress, whether you’re in the conference room or on the playing field.

Let’s focus first on maximizing working memory, which provides access to information you need for complex tasks such as reasoning, comprehension and learning. Working memory is kind of like a mental scratch pad that stores information relevant to the task at hand, whether you’re figuring out the tip, learning new software or responding to tough, on-the-spot questions from a client.

Any thoughts of worry and anxiety you feel in a pressure-filled situation – Did I say the right thing? How am I going to get this all done? – deplete valuable processing power of your working memory.

The solution is to exercise your mind so it becomes more agile under duress. (Don’t waste any working memory being skeptical —  ongoing research by experts such as University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock and Mind Fitness Training Institute founder Dr. Liz Stanley are providing definitive proof of the powerful impact of mental fitness exercises such as meditation and mindfulness.)

Here’s a mental push-up from the MFTI that’s simple, non-woo woo (come on, Marines did them in a recent Department of Defense study) and takes less than five minutes. So, unless you like choking, let’s do it.

  1. Sit with an upright posture, eyes closed or loosely focused on the ground in front of you.
  2. Do a quick mental scan of your body, from head to feet, becoming aware of any areas of tension or discomfort — not necessarily to make it go away, just to see if it lessens by bringing attention to it.
  3. Focus your attention on the physical sensation of where your bottom makes contact with the ground or your chair.
  4. When you realize your attention has drifted, and it will — usually within a few seconds — bring it back to the sensation of contact.
  5. Every time your mind wanders and you bring it back, that counts as one rep.

Once you’ve got the hang of that, try the inner and outer shuffle. Then let me know how it goes in the comments!

  1. Begin by focusing your attention on your main point of contact with the ground.
  2. Pay attention to the moment when your concentration locks onto that sensation. (It might feel like landing or striking the target.)
  3. Now deploy your focus to any specific sound around you — the hum of a refrigerator or computer, for example.
  4. Once you feel your concentration has landed firmly on that sound, shift back to your contact point. This is the shuttle, shifting your attention back and forth from the inward to something outward. As you find your attention wandering, bring it back and continue.
  5. Add variety to this exercise by shuttling between any of your five senses (shifting your focus from the feel of the computer keyboard under your fingers, for example, or the sensation of your feet on the ground).


  1. Pingback: How To Shine When You’re On the Spot (Or How To Avoid Choking Under Pressure, Part II) : Step Up Your Game

  2. carroll cummings June 15, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    thanks for these. While I had done the scan, the shuffle was new ( so was the feet being a landing spot on the ground)and brought that endeavor to a whole new level- where it needs to be. Love the senses like the fingertips.

  3. Pingback: How to Shine When You’re on the Spot | First 30 Days Blog

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