The Secrets of Choke


I learned about Choke through a Freakanomics Podcast that featured author Sian Beilock. Since the episode centered heavily around sports, I was hoping to learn more about keeping my cool during a tennis match when I purchased the book. However, in reality, there are all sorts of high pressure situations that are ripe for choking – musical performances, business presentations, public speaking, and test taking to name a few.

One of the most interesting concepts was on awareness of negative performance stereotypes. If you remind women that they’re bad at math before they take a math test, even women who are good at math will score lower. 

Likewise, if women see other women in leadership roles, they’re more likely to say that women are capable leaders. This same research was done with African Americans around the election of Obama. In short, diversity in leadership matters because it inspires others.

The pressure of a clock tends to degrade tests scores for those with demonstrated ability in a topic. In a world where tests determine who is “in” and who is “out,” that’s a real problem.

What can you do to avoid choking? Distract yourself. When I play tennis, I sometimes focus on my feet and the pressure of the court surface. Don’t slow down. Don’t give yourself too much time to think. Practice under stress. This way the moment will be more familiar when it comes. Don’t dwell. See your failures as a chance to learn and improve. Focus on the outcome, not the mechanics. Thinking about your arm when swinging a racquet or putting can cause you to seize. Think about where you want the ball to land or something outside your body. Find a key word. A one word mantra can keep you focused. Focus on the positive. If you focus on the negative, you’ll feel out of control.

Choke by Sian Beilock