How to Avoid Choking Under Pressure with Dr. Sian Beilock, Cognitive Scientist, Author & President of Barnard College

Dr. Sian Beilock is a celebrated cognitive scientist. She’s published over a hundred papers in her field of study and gave a Ted Talk on choking under pressure which has been viewed over 2 million times. She is the current president of Barnard College in New York City.

Prior to her appointment as President, Beilock spent twelve years at the University of Chicago. As the Stella M. Rowley Professor of Psychology and a member of the Committee on Education, she specialized in how children and adults learn and perform at their best, especially under stress.

President Beilock is the author of two books that have been published in more than a dozen languages—the critically acclaimed Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have To (2010) and How the Body Knows Its Mind: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel (2015).

President Beilock earned her Bachelor of Science in cognitive science from the University of California, San Diego, and doctorates of philosophy in both kinesiology and psychology from Michigan State University.

In this episode, Dr. Beilock and Dr. Kamphoff discuss:

  • The science behind performing under pressure
  • Why choking occurs
  • How we can reach our unlimited potential
  • Why it is important to “Don’t think, just do.”
  • How to unhook our prefrontal cortex
  • How writing thoughts down on paper can prevent your mind from dwelling on them
  • The power of self-compassion in pressure moments
  • Numerous tools to help you avoid choking under pressure
  • Plus, much more…

“What I talk about as choking is, the worst performance that you’re capable of precisely because you feel pressure to perform well.” @sianbeilock
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“Sometimes we pay too much attention to the details of what we’re doing.”-@sianbeilock
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“How we think about a situation changes how the brain functions and that changes how we perform.”-@sianbeilock
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“One of the elements of being a great leader is having that individualized effect on different people.”-@sianbeilock
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Full Transcription:

Cindra Kamphoff: Sian, so excited to talk with you this afternoon, how is your day going so far?

Sian Beilock: It’s been busy and it’s cold here in New York, but good other than that.

Cindra Kamphoff: It’s cold here in Minnesota to we’ve had this great weather and then all of a sudden it’s snowing like five inches six inches today, so I don’t know what that’s about. So to get us started see on can you just tell us a little bit about what you’re passionate about and what you’re doing right now?

Sian Beilock: So I’m President of Barnard College at Columbia University, which is the premier college focused on women’s leadership in the US and I’m passionate about helping young women go out and change the world and, in addition to my being President I’m also a cognitive scientist and I focus on human performance basically I’m interested in why we sometimes don’t perform at our best when it matters most book called Choke.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yes, and that’s one of the reasons that we’re having you on the podcast today I love your book choke I read it several years ago, and I know you’re working on another book as well. Maybe just to get us started tell us a bit about why you started studying choking and just performing under pressure in general?

Sian Beilock: Yeah so I definitely do some research, in addition to research you know, I was an athlete growing up and always interested in why sometimes didn’t put my best foot forward when it mattered most on the playing field or taking tests or speaking in front of others and when I got to college I realized that there was lots of research focused on how to perform at your best, but much less asking questions about why really counter intuitively sometimes when we want to do well, we don’t and so that’s what.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah and I listened to your Ted talk, along with it was very good to over 2 million views. So you can I know that people are really interested in this topic, because you know we perform under pressure and lots of different areas?

Sian Beilock: yYah and it’s you know I think we often think about the Olympic athlete or the super bowl is the place where we perform under pressure or people perform under pressure, but one of the reasons I think this topic is so important is that we all perform under pressure in lots of you know middle medium low stakes situations, all the time. Whether it’s you know, raising your hand in a meeting pitching to a client, for me, you know parallel parking with my friends in the car you know there’s all sorts of times when we feel a little bit of pressure.

Cindra Kamphoff: I feel pressure to win in parallel parking. Sian Beilock: Very good when no one’s watching.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah isn’t that true so I know you were talking about in the book choke you know there’s you know we generally have performance ups and downs and that’s not really choking so tell us how you’ve come to conceptualize this word choking and what it really means?

Sian Beilock: yeah I mean we all have performance ups and downs that’s normal, but what I talked about this choking is worse performance than you’re capable of precisely because you feel pressure to perform well, maybe, people are watching you don’t want to let someone down there’s something on the line, and this is, you know exactly when you want to perform at your best and you just can’t put your best foot forward.

Cindra Kamphoff: So what would you say generally leads to people choking?

Sian Beilock: So one of the biggest reasons people choke is that they haven’t practiced in the right way by that I mean practicing under the kinds of conditions you’re going to perform under you see, the time in athletics in taking a test when you have to do, public speaking, we often you know, maybe practice the skills or read over our notes, but we don’t practice being anxious, practice under the kinds of conditions where all eyes are on you and it turns out that if you haven’t practiced in that way you really haven’t practiced how you’re going to perform, and that can lead to poor performance so there’s lots of research showing that when you start mimicking the conditions under which you’re going to perform under I talked about closing this gap between training and competition, you actually perform better when it when it counts.

Cindra Kamphoff: So let’s say I’m a business leader or an athletic coach and I want to make sure that you know the people that I have on my team can be able to perform when maybe the stakes are high, what would you tell us to do in practice to make sure that there’s opportunity for us to be anxious and you know into practice that?

Sian Beilock: yeah so if you’re you know the team as a business leader and you, they have to pitch to a client or give an important presentation I’d want you my team to give that presentation will others watch as practice, maybe you invite in another team from the company or if no one can watch you videotape yourselves anything to get that feeling of all eyes on you and it turns out that when you practice in that way you realize what you need to change what is not clear and you can do the same thing on the on the field, rather than practicing free throws or the core when no one’s watching you know we’re heading into march madness happens if you. If every time someone misses free throw a practice the rest of the team has to do something, maybe not so fun run a lap sprint’s that will sure put the pressure on the person today.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah absolutely and I think one of the things that really stood out to me when you were talking about what leads to people choking is this idea of our attention and that our attention, might be on the wrong thing can you talk a little bit about that, and how that leads to choking?

Sian Beilock: Yeah we often in these pressure situations are so worried about doing well, that we start paying attention to every detail of what we’re doing and I think we’ve all experienced this when you’re talking to someone you want to impress and you start monitoring everything coming out of your mouth right and that’s not flowing and you end up not saying something that’s sensical and so you know what my research and others have shown is that sometimes we pay too much attention to the details of what we’re doing you see this in athletics all the time. You know people choke oftentimes when they start trying to monitor every aspect of how their wrist is moving or what they’re doing with their foot when they should just leave it on autopilot and so a lot of my research has shown that we can put tools in place so that we don’t actually pay that much too much attention to those aspects of what you’re doing and an example I give that I think helps resonate with this idea is that imagine if you’re shuffling down the stairs and I asked you to think about what you’re doing with your knee you know there’s a good chance you fall on your face right is that you don’t often pay attention to it runs outside of conscious control, and when you do pay attention you end up slowing everything down and mucking with it and so, when you’re going into that stressful situation, the first thing I would say, is for those five minutes before you don’t go over every detail of what you’re going to do distract yourself, you know my favorite thing to do is actually read a magazine like something that just gets my head away from everything going on, I don’t read the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times because I’ll get too emotionally involved, but I do something that’s just mindless right and then, when you get into that situation, something as simple as singing a little song or having three keywords or a mantra anything that keeps your attention off of going into the details too much of what you’re doing because at that point, you know it and you just got to do it.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah that’s really helpful and there is a page in your book that I started, and it said athletes tendency to overthink their performance is one of the biggest predictors of whether they will choke at important games or matches, and so I like what you’re saying about that we can overthink our mechanics. Do you also find that we overthink other things I’m wondering, you know, for me, I when I choked as an athlete it was like I was focused on the outcome definitely sometimes who was there are there other things that we can think about beyond our mechanics that lead to choking?

Sian Beilock: I mean, I think, who is there and the outcomes causes you to start focusing and trying to control what you’re doing right, so the pressure can be you know, we find it’s really easy to make people feel pressure if they have people who are supportive watching them if they’re thinking about what’s on the line if they don’t want to let someone down and all of those things as you to start trying to control what you’re doing right yeah no the question is, how do you get rid of those are, how do you make it so it’s not as important right, so if you’re focused on who’s there watching you. Why not, and if you’re a coach coaching young athletes, for example, why not invite the parents to practice so it’s not like they’re just showing up to a game right so it’s not like all of a sudden, the game is so different again, you know if you are putting together a presentation that has high stakes, why not do it to someone else in the company, why not even invite you know the next team or a boss to watch it.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah yeah really good can you give us an example of the time that you choked even though maybe you knew this research, because I can give you some of mine my examples?

Sian Beilock: So I mean I choke all the time, I think it’s really important in this, you know I think one thing that I hope people take away from my work is that we’re not born chokers or drivers right, we can always we can use these psychological tools that I talked about in my Ted talk and in my book choke to help perform better. You know oftentimes for me nowadays it’s not so much public speaking I do that so much I’m well practiced but it’s what I’m trying to meet with someone and I’m trying to impress them and so I started thinking about what I’m saying and what they’re thinking about what I’m saying and then all of a sudden I’m thinking about what they’re thinking about what I’m thinking and then I start monitoring everything I’m saying right and then it’s just a disaster, so I try, for example on when I’m doing important meetings over zoom now I actually make it so I can’t see myself on the screen, because I find that to be really distracting I monitor myself and that’s a tool I’ve used performed better.

Cindra Kamphoff: Excellent when I was preparing to interview you I thought of sometimes I choked and one particular time I’m a speaker and I was invited my first speaker showcase where there you know, like 25 speakers and I was towards the end which was really a lot of pressure for me because I saw all these incredible speakers and I just got up there, and definitely overthinking more mechanical than speaking from my heart and I didn’t get booked what from what like I think one or two people in the audience from that but I’m not sure how?

Sian Beilock: Right, and I think it’s actually a really important thing to remember is that we often are so much harsher on ourselves than are on us and I talked a lot about this in terms of having self-compassion, first of all, yeah you’re paying way more attention to yourself than I’m paying you because I’m paying attention to myself right and so we often have this tendency to spotlight to think that other people are remembering every little mistake we made, and in fact that’s not true, and you can. We all have examples of this, where we’ve been out with a group of friends and you say something kind of dumb and then later, you say to one of your good friends oh I can’t believe I said that and they’re like I don’t remember right, I mean because no one’s paying attention to you there, that’s into themselves so it’s important to remember that’s actually helpful to keep that in mind, and then you know it’s having compassion, when you don’t get everything hundred percent right, we can be the worst critics of ourselves, which can lead to additional pressure So how do you step back and have a little bit more self-compassion and one great way to do that is just to distance yourself in your mental coaching so like instead of saying I can’t do this right actually, talking to yourself by first names he on you can do this it’s like you kind of take the compassion you take the passion out of it, the emotion out of it, you just really step back and it’s like how you would coach a friend.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah that’s beautiful and I know that people who are listening do struggle with that I struggle with the compassion of myself, even though that’s one of my goals for this year is like less judgment more compassion, but it’s, I think, especially if you have high goals it’s

hard to be compassionate because you want you think maybe that if you’re compassionate with yourself, you won’t reach those goals or something like that?

Sian Beilock: Yeah and I always think you know a good way to people who really want to strive for a lot, you know we’re hard on ourselves, so I always think a good way to judge that is like or is what you’re saying to yourself, would you ever say that to a friend, right yeah and that’s like a good litmus test.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah awesome I think it was in your Ted talk, where I heard you say like don’t think just do and I was thinking as myself as a mental performance coach and also sometimes that’s hard for me to do right just don’t think just do so what advice would you give us to try that don’t think just do and how do you think that then prevents choking?

Sian Beilock: Yeah I think you know there’s tools, you can use right So if you have a one word mantra for your swing thought or, if you are trying to hit a certain spot at the back of the net or singing a song to yourself, you know when I walk into an important presentation, I have three key points I want to get across like written on a little piece of paper which lets everything else just go so these are the three things I want to get across in the interview, and then I have to worry about the rest of it, and so you want to scaffold yourself give yourself tools, so you can really in that moment just do.

Cindra Kamphoff: Awesome you also have said something about like unhooking your prefrontal cortex and I wanted to talk with you a little bit more about that because I’m thinking about right that’s the rational side of your brain and tell us, maybe, how and why we need to unhook that and is it an over activation of the prefrontal cortex where we choke or give us a little insight on that?

Sian Beilock: yeah I mean it’s almost like having too many cooks in the kitchen right, so our frontal cortex and our prefrontal cortex is the seat of our ability to control our attention and we focus it’s used to focus sometimes too much on what we’re doing right, and so the question is how do you, how do you step back and just go with the flow in terms of being on autopilot letting things roll off as you talked about speaking from the heart and all the little things I talked about our kind of you know, getting these keywords down having a swing thought to one a couple things you’re going to fall back on can be really great ways to do that it’s, also the case that reminding yourself, when you have physiological signs of stress like a sweaty palm beating heart just reminding yourself reinterpreting the situation. These are not signs I’m going to fail in fact my heart is beating fast so it’s shunting blood to my brain, so I can focus on the right things just framing that can be a great way to take that sort of over monitoring off and finally we’ve shown that just getting your thoughts down on paper, your words down on paper before a big event helps download them from mind they’re less likely to pop up and distract you, and these are all you know little things toolboxes part of the toolbox, as I talked about that you can use to really unhook that prefrontal cortex to step back and just do.

Cindra Kamphoff: Excellent really good suggestions I think what you just said about reminding yourself to reinterpret that stress the physiological symptoms of stress and excitement are the same right so it’s like and I appreciate what you said about not seeing it is a sign that you’re going to fail?

Sian Beilock: yeah and we’ve actually done research, where, for example high school students taking a really important test in their science classes we’ve randomly assigned some of them to read a passage about you know their sweaty palms and beating heart and Oh no it’s you know a sign you’re stressed, whereas others read the passage about a sweaty palms and beating heart and oh my gosh it’s a sign you’re ready to go right and just be doing that the students that read about a sign you’re ready to go actually did better on the test just reinterpreting that how you perceive that stress is really important, and the fact of the matter is if we didn’t have any stress or arousal we’d be dead right, this is important to remember like this is something that is beneficial to us right, and so, how do you see it in this way to use it in that way, and how you think about it really matters.

Cindra Kamphoff: Excellent you know you’ve already given us some really good strategies that we can use, which I think is really helpful when people are understanding choking you said, like one word Montreux or singing a song reinterpreting the symptoms, or how your new your body’s feeling writing down your worries are some things that you gave us what I also really liked about your book is you gave such you know great research about choking and what leads to it, but it was also very practical and I really liked these this on 174 and 175 here, where you gave you know just some tools to ensure success under stress, can you give us a little insight on maybe what some of those tools would be to ensure success under stress?

Sian Beilock: Yeah so I don’t have the book in front of me, why don’t you read one to me.

Cindra Kamphoff: Perfect. Well here’s some examples you said reaffirm yourself worth, map out your complexities write about your worries you’ve already talked about think differently reinterpret your reactions that’s actually what you said pause your choke educate the worries the Obama effect, yeah practice under pressure.

Sian Beilock: yeah so I’ve talked about some of those I’ll talk about a couple more that that you mentioned, there. So one is really focusing on why you should succeed and that’s about reaffirming yourself worth I think we’re so quick to be like oh I don’t have to. I can’t do it I’m not you know I’m so worried about the What if you know what if I fail and, instead, you can actually have the power to change that internal monologue, so why should you succeed you’ve practice, more than anyone else when I walk into give her research presentation, I always remind myself I know my data and this better than anyone else in the world, or at least better than anyone else in the room. So there’s no way that I shouldn’t be able to do this well like that’s my lift in these situations and you’re walking into give a presentation you’re probably well way more versed in what you’re doing than anyone else in the room remind yourself of that and that’s really about reaffirming why you should succeed, rather than thinking about why you should. Another one that I focus on I talked about in the book is mapping out yourself

complexities and I think this is a really important one we often when we’re so focused on succeeding in an athletic event or at work, we forget that we are multiple people in one so there’s a benefit to being multiplied complex so I’m a college President I’m a researcher I’m a mother I’m a friend I’m an athlete and it turns out that when you remind yourself of all those things when you have a bad day in one you kind of buffered because you can fall back on another and so, when I have a bad day at work, I can go home and hug my nine year old and when my nine year old says I’m the worst mother in the world, I can focus on my work and it’s very important to bounce to remind yourself of all these complexities, because it makes you realize that every egg is not in one basket that it’s not all about this one particular moment or presentation, it just takes some of the pressure.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah and that’s what I was thinking, as I was hearing you say that, as it takes the pressure off the this one, maybe a role that we have and we can for at least for a while turn our attention to something else distract ourselves in the book, you talked a bit about gender differences and just being stereotyped negatively can make us feel pressure tell us a bit about that, and what you found?

Sian Beilock: Yeah well you know I lead Barnard college, which is the premier institution focused on women, and you know it’s really interesting because our Barnard, women are exceptional and one of the reasons are exceptional is because I think we address these gender issue steps head on right so a third of our graduates are math and science majors Barnard is number nine out of any college or university and sending women to get PhDs in science. You know, per capita of our undergrads really impressive and one of the things we do is we address these gender stereotypes head on there’s no reason, girls and boys would be should be any different in math performance. In fact, that data don’t there’s no brain differences for that there’s certainly reasons that girls and boys are conditioned differently, but we can change that and really these ideas just addressing these stereotypes kind of undermining their significance can do a lot to impact performance and another way to do this, which I think is so important that is often discounted is to see people who are like you at Barnard 60% of our science faculty are women, and our students learn very early on that they can succeed in stem to and there’s power and seeing is believing in all aspects of life and it’s a great way to undermine stereotypes about which racial group or gender group or economic group can do.

Cindra Kamphoff: And what advice would you give us like as a woman or a person of color or a different way that we might be negatively stereotyped. What advice would you give us to maybe consider in a moment of pressure and if we’re if we’re thinking about, for example, I work a lot in football and there’s not very many women, so sometimes I can overthink that but that doesn’t help me so you know what advice, maybe, would you give for those people who are listening?

Sian Beilock: yeah I mean I think that’s a great example of where you could potentially fall prey to the stereotype that you don’t belong right and it just rot, you have the cognitive resources to do your job and that’s where I think you can really do what I talked about in terms of reaffirming yourself worth like maybe you’re not many women play football but I’d venture to

guess that you are the most expert in the psychological processes that these guys are thinking about right and you bring to the table, so there it’s like it doesn’t matter if women are playing football it matters that you are the expert in what they need right and so really focusing on that right, and I think this is true in any situation, a student who is an anomaly university focusing on they why they got there they were picked out of so many people to be there, they have what it takes and they bring something really important to the table a different lived experience that’s going to allow everyone to think better and so really narrating that for yourself is important we often don’t give enough value to those stories we tell it to ourselves and it turns out how we think about a situation changes, how the brain functions and that changes, how we perform, and so our thoughts and mindsets really matter.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah and I’m thinking about the environment, and specifically the environment there at the College were supporting other women and maybe that I know for sure that allows other women to thrive what can you talk and talk a little bit about the environment and how that plays a role in choking either if it’s a in education or business or sport?

Sian Beilock: yeah I mean I think it’s a noxious up to the individual and the situation but it’s up to the leaders or managers at a company or coaches to create an environment where people are getting information and support it, for how they perform right so let’s say it’s even signaling that performing poorly isn’t a sign that you don’t have it right, or you don’t know what you’re doing it’s assigned you didn’t practice the right way. So a coach can set that up to Ping as a team and an important game, or as an individual is not assigned you shouldn’t be there it’s assigned you figured out the right way to perform in that situation or get to the table and just setting up those expectations can do a lot to take the pressure off.

Cindra Kamphoff: And there are situations where maybe coaches or parents or leaders might produce an environment that leads actually to choking instead of the opposite?

Sian Beilock: yeah I mean certainly any situation where a coach is you know it’s a fine line between getting our players ramped up and ready to go and sort of making it so that stresses and pressure is negative, rather than positive, and so I think you know part of great coaches are figuring out what level each player needs auto one size fits all that’s certainly true for managers, you know you manage different people differently. I think that’s true for teachers as well, and so you know I would, I would say that one of the elements of being a great leader is having that individualized effect on different people.

Cindra Kamphoff: Yeah yeah love it, you also talk in the book about changing the way that we experience, fear and I thought that was really powerful I’m curious your thoughts on that and how we might really change how we fear and what we fear, so that we don’t choke as much?

Sian Beilock: yeah I mean I think some of it is you know we have a lot of research showing that it’s where we see the effects say in the brain of people who are worried about something is not when they’re actually doing it it’s when it’s leading up to it so we’ve looked a lot of people who

are worried about math and we put them in a brain scanner and actually see what’s happening in the brain and what we show is that it’s not when they’re doing math problems that’s when they just know that the math is coming that they activate fear and pain centers in the brain and so that’s really interesting right because it’s just that if you can change these what it is if you can chat leading up to the stressful situation you’re going to be in a much better position and, and so I mean it’s everything from telling yourself okay I’m worried about the situation, I know that the worst time right before, but once I’m in it I’ll drive or it won’t bother me So how do I take my mind off it leading up to it right, can I relax man wracked myself that’s where my us magazine reading comes in, because if I didn’t do that I’d spend five minutes worrying about what was about to happen, but I know once I get in there I’ll be okay. So I think that’s actually a really important part of it is oftentimes we’re way more afraid before than during the actual stressful situation and reminding ourselves of that and then actually figuring out what techniques we’re going to use to get rid of that fear can be important.

Cindra Kamphoff: And I thought, what you said about changing these What if right so we’re changing the way that we might think about the outcome in more of a positive, proactive way yeah yeah okay see on I am so grateful for your time, I have one more question before we close up in the Ted talk that you gave about choking and performing under pressure, you said this really powerful thing, and you said, like, how can we reach our unlimited potential. And I wanted to talk with you a little bit about that what’s you know what do you think the key is there of us reaching our unlimited potential and how can we do that?

Sian Beilock: Well, I mean this might be an obvious answer for me, but I think one of the ways that we do, that is, learn to perform our best when it matters most I can’t even imagine how many world records have been broken when no one’s watching right, and so the question is how do we do it when all eyes are on us, and I think having an idea of what happens in the brain and body in a stressful situations is key, because it allows us, then, not just to train a skill, or to acquire knowledge, but to train our mind as well.

Cindra Kamphoff: Excellent, so Sian’s bookshelf what the secrets of the what the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to I know you have another book tell us about where we can get that and where we can just find more about your work and follow, along with what you’re doing?

Sian Beilock: Yeah so I have another book how the body knows its mind and you can get both on Amazon or on my website, which is my name is, I’m on Twitter as beilock@beilock and on Instagram is pressed by luck and I hope you follow me.

Cindra Kamphoff: Awesome Thank you Dr Beilock, I’m so grateful for your time and what you just gave to the high-performance mindset Community Thank you so much, I appreciate you.

Sian Beilock: Oh, it was great to be here, thank you.