The Pressure Test: How to Avoid Choking Under Stress

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Pressure; Photo Credit: Kevin Ku/Unsplash

Have you ever noticed that the more pressure you feel, the more anxious you get and, therefore, the more likely you are to make a mistake?

For Type A meeting planners who are choking under pressure or are afraid to make mistakes, you might be interested to know that there’s a name for that. Sian Leah Beilock, Barnard College president and cognitive scientist, calls this overactive attention: “paralysis by analysis.” It happens because we rarely practice under the same conditions that we perform under, she explains in a TED Talk, titled “Why We Choke Under Pressure—And How to Avoid It.”

Beilock and her fellow research team studied soccer players, who were asked to pay attention to the step-by-step actions they make as they dribble the ball. This led to slower and more error-prone performance because they were consciously trying to control the outcome. This is why top athletes like basketball player Tim Duncan have been quoted saying, “When you have to stop and think, that’s when you mess up.”

Beilock suggests there are ways to avoid this overactive attention by simply singing a song or paying attention to something else. She uses the example of golfer Jack Nicklaus, whose famous strategy for playing was focusing on his pinky toe. Another way to get rid of those worries is by writing down the self doubts you have, she says, because the more you prepare for the worst, the easier it is to overcome those fears.

But even our environment can affect whether we choke or thrive. For meeting planners, that can range from your family upbringing to societal values to hectic or not-so-hectic workplaces. Something like poking fun at your inability to do math can make you second guess your abilities to calculate square footage — and what meeting planner can afford to do that?

Check out the TED Talk to learn more about how to avoid choking under pressure, and consider applying Beilock’s advice during your next high-stress event.

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