By William Harms
Photo by Jason Smith

There is a large body of work about why people are successful. What I wanted to do was find out why people who are talented sometimes fail.”
—Sian Beilock
Associate Professor, Psychology

Ever since Sian Beilock’s high school soccer team lost a high-profile match in the California state tournament, she has known first-hand how good athletes can choke under pressure.

Her coach had invited recruiters to watch the big game, adding pressure that distracted Beilock, who played goalkeeper.

“I didn’t make the saves I should have made,” Beilock says. “I knew all eyes were on me, and so I started thinking way too much about aspects of my performance that should have been left on autopilot.”

Years of study have taught Beilock that such failures are more than just embarrassing bouts with nerves. Now an associate professor of psychology at UChicago, Beilock seeks the common threads underlying various kinds of choking, whether in sports, on academic tests, or during public speaking. She found that her own past episodes of choking in each of those areas only fueled her interest.

“There is a large body of work about why people are successful,” she says. “What I wanted to do was find out why people who are talented sometimes fail.”

Work Garners Much Attention

Beilock’s experiments have uncovered surprising links among different kinds of mental choking. Such breakdowns are preventable results of information logjams in the brain, Beilock says. By studying how the brain works when people are doing their best—and when they choke—Beilock has formulated practical ideas about how to overcome performance lapses at critical moments.

Those insights are the basis of Beilock’s new book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To, which builds on her earlier work that attracted the attention of scholars around the country.

“One of the real strengths of Beilock’s work is that she has focused on a variety of factors that might hurt people’s performance under stress,” says Art Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Texas and the editor of the journal Cognitive Science.

“Her work illuminates how stress can make you pay attention to your own performance, which can hurt the execution of well-learned skills,” Markman says. “It also explores how people's online capacity for thinking (called working memory) is reduced under pressure. Her careful use of experimental methods has added significantly to our understanding of these processes.”

’Whistle While You Work’

Thinking too much about what you are doing because you are worried about failing can lead to “paralysis by analysis,” Beilock says. That was what led to her downfall at the important soccer match. Part of how people become experts at tasks like saving goals or making golf putts is by practicing so much that key movements become automatic and reliable. Thinking too much about each specific part of the task can throw off well-practiced techniques.

One implication of that finding is that expert performers can benefit from taking their minds off of the tasks they have perfected. Even a simple trick of singing helps prevent portions of the brain that might interfere with performance from taking over, Beilock’s research shows. “Whistling while you work” really can help for such experts.

“If the tasks are automatic and you have done them a thousand times in the past, a mild distraction such as whistling can help them run off more smoothly under pressure,” Beilock says.

Understanding working memory helps researchers understand why “paralysis by analysis” happens. Talented people often have the most working memory, but when worries creep up, the working memory they normally use to succeed malfunctions. People lose the brain power necessary to excel and often wield what power they have left to their disadvantage by thinking too much about activities that are best left outside conscious awareness.

Worries Weaken Working Memory

Another example of the choking phenomenon is “stereotype threat.” This is when otherwise talented people don’t perform up to their abilities because they are worried about confirming popular cultural myths that contend, for instance, that boys and girls naturally perform differently in math, or that a person’s race determines his or her test performance. Minority group members can be vulnerable, she says.

In Choke, Beilock describes how high-achieving people underperform when they are worried about confirming a stereotype about the racial group or gender to which they belong. These worries deplete the working memory necessary for success. The perceptions take hold early in schooling and can either be reinforced or abolished by powerful role models.

Even the brightest students can choke if anxiety taps out their mental resources. But there also are ways to combat these anxieties and prevent them from taking hold, says Beilock. She suggests using relaxation techniques just before playing in an athletic competition, taking an exam, or giving an important speech. Beilock says she often uses yoga to help reduce stress before important events such as academic presentations.

She also says that practice helps people navigate these waves of anxiety. Most important, practicing under stress, even a moderate amount, helps a person feel comfortable later when standing in the line of fire. It is a crucial part of expert performance—having the confidence to face challenges calmly and to rely on experience and training.

“Remind yourself that you have the background to succeed and that you are in control of the situation,” Beilock says.

Originally published on October 25, 2010.