Why You Choke Under Pressure, And What To Do About It

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Last night, I played keyboards in a band for a holiday party. I was playing songs that, for the most part, I hadn’t played in a year or more. There were several songs that I’d never played before. In fact, for some of these songs, I’d never even seen the sheet music until I pulled up a chart on my iPhone seconds before playing the song live.

Was I nervous? Nope.

Did I feel pressure? Nope.

Did I choke? Nope.

Okay, so how is that possible? How is it possible that I wasn’t nervous, didn’t feel pressure, and didn’t choke?

It’s not because I’m a brilliant keyboardist. I’m not.

It’s not because playing keyboards in a band is “do-it-in-your-sleep” easy. It’s not. (Unless you’re a brilliant keyboardist, which I’m not. See above.)

It’s not because I didn’t care about the music, or how I sounded.

I didn’t choke because I didn’t attach any importance to the event.

We choke under pressure when we attach too much importance to the event. #ProducingUnderPressure Click To Tweet

Sure, I wanted it to be successful. But it didn’t really matter. This was a holiday party at a friend’s house. He’s a musician, so he reached out to some musician friends and said, “Hey, let’s get together and play a few tunes at the party!” That’s it! Literally, no pressure.

Now, it probably would have been different if, instead of a casual house party, we’d been at Madison Square Garden opening for Springsteen. The pressure would be drastically increased, as would the chances of choking.

This is because we choke when we attach great importance to the outcome.

When the championship game is on the line, when the job is on the line, when the college admission is on the line—that’s when we choke. When something is on the line.

We choke under pressure when we feel there’s something on the line. #ProducingUnderPressure Click To Tweet

So how do you get around that? How do you produce under pressure when the outcome is important?

To answer that, let’s make a distinction. There’s a difference between recognizing the importance of an event and inflating the importance of an event. Unfortunately, our nature is to do the latter. At its most extreme, it’s called “catastrophizing.” Catastrophizing sounds like this:

  • “I’ll just die if I don’t get this job!”
  • “If I miss this putt, my career will be over!”
  • “If I can’t fit into these jeans for the high school reunion, I’ll be a laughingstock and my life will be ruined!”

In all likelihood, none of these things are true. In nearly every case (there are exceptions, of course), outcomes—even negative outcomes—are not as bad as we predict. And even negative outcomes can lead to positive results. For example, I’ll bet you know someone whose first marriage ended in divorce, but who got it right the second time around.

So one key to avoid choking is to look at the event—whatever it is—with a realistic perspective.

If the event is truly important, there’s already a certain amount of pressure there. There’s no need to add to the pressure—and increase your chances of choking—by catastrophizing!

QUESTION: What other techniques have you found that decrease your chances of choking under pressure?


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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