Book Review: Choke by Sian Beilock

Choke: The Secret to Performing Under Pressure by Sian Beilock is another great book you can read to help you perform better under pressure. I've already written three reviews on books about performing under pressure. They include:

Choke by Sian Beilock adds to this collection with its own helpful advice. The great thing about Choke is that it's written by an author who has personally researched the topic of choking and performing under pressure in university laboratories. The knowledge and advice she gives in this book is not only well-researched but also very easy to read. Beilock does a great job simplifying the language. Unlike other scientific books, you can read this book relatively fast and comprehend all of it at the same time!

The premise of this book is that by understanding how people choke in different situations, you can better apply strategies to help you perform under pressure. One of the main things you'll learn in this book is that there are two types of chokes. First, choking can occur when pressure disrupts your working memory, making it harder to perform cognitive tasks such as taking a math test or making strategic decisions in games. For example, when worries start clouding up in your head, you have less mental horsepower that can be used to think rationally and solve problems, which can lead to choking under pressure. Also, when under pressure, you are more likely to become emotional and make impulsive decisions. Secondly, choking can occur in physical activities when pressure, nervousness, and self-consciousness cause you to take conscious control of your learned motor skills. This usually leads to choking because learned motor skills are best executed subconsciously. Your movements can become more rigid and less fluid when you lose trust in your instincts and instead try to control your movements more consciously.

Like Beilock says, the first step to prevent choking is to understand why it happens. Once you understand the science behind pressure and choking, you can then better apply strategies to perform better under pressure.

Here are the many tips Beilock provides for dealing with choking:

Perhaps the best tip for performing under pressure is to simply get used it! The more you practice under pressure, and the more you put yourself in real pressure situations, the more you'll get used to it. The more you get used to it, the less nervous you'll be because the pressure situation will feel more normal and less threatening. With more experience, you'll grow more confident because you know you've done it before.

To fully prepare yourself for pressure situations, it's important to practice under a wide variety of pressure situations. Specifically, it's important to practice while being watched or videotaped. This will help desensitize you to the pressure of being watched and judged, which will make you less self-conscious during a performance, which will help clear your mind and trust your instincts.

There are many strategies you can use to help take pressure off of yourself before a big exam or game. One of these strategies is writing down your worries on paper, which can help you find closure, release stress, confront your negative thoughts, and replace them with more positive and rational thoughts. Writing about your positive traits can also improve your self-confidence. Lastly, writing about the many different facets of your self-identity can help take pressure off of yourself. If you know that you are more than just a student or an athlete, you won't feel as much pressure heading into an exam or a game.

Another way to improve your confidence, and therefore reduce pressure, is by reminding yourself of your past successes. Tell yourself that if you've done it before, you can do it again! It can also help to remind yourself of the success of people similar to yourself. Tell yourself that if they can do it, so can you!

Practicing meditation regularly can train your mind to better let go of negative thoughts and return to the task at hand. This can greatly help free up working memory space while under pressure.

Reinterpret your body's reaction to stress. Instead of thinking that your increased heart rate means you're nervous, interpret it as being excited and ready to perform! 

Here is a specific tip meant to help prevent choking in the classroom:

In pressure situations such as test taking, it can help to take time to pause, slow down, calm yourself down, and think rationally about your strategies. Students often choke when they fail to do this, and instead dive in and rush themselves during a test. This often causes them to choose the wrong problem-solving strategies.

Here are specific tips meant to help prevent choking in sports:

When it comes to athletic tasks, taking time to pause and slow down can actually hurt your performance. This is because the more time you wait to take action, the more time you have to overthink, which can cause you to choke. This is why it is often better to "just do it" when it comes to athletic tasks. You can read more about this tip in this blog post.

One way to keep worries from entering your head during games is to focus entirely on the task at hand. For example, the more you're in the moment and focused on the ball while playing tennis, the less likely negative thoughts are to enter your mind.

However, staying focused on the task at hand doesn't always prevent negative thoughts during high-pressure situations. Sometimes you have to do more to keep your mind occupied. This is why it can help to distract yourself. Normally, distractions hurt your performance by taking away your attention from the task at hand or by making you worry more. But there are certain types of distractions that are actually helpful. For example, you can distract yourself from pressure by keeping song lyrics stuck in your head. This type of distraction helps keep you trusting your instincts while also focused on the task at hand at the same time. Repeating a simple mantra or key word in your head can also prevent you from thinking too much about your mechanics while playing. For example, you can think of the word "smooth" as you shoot a free-throw. Lastly, you can keep your mind occupied by thinking about strategy rather than your mechanics. For example, in tennis, you should focus more on where to the hit ball than how to hit the ball. Keep your attention placed externally, on the target, and let it rip!

The truth is, everyone chokes at times. What separates great athletes from average athletes is the ability to bounce back from chokes. Many people become discouraged after they choke. They may think that they are a "natural choker" and this reduces their confidence and makes them more nervous heading into future pressure situations. This often creates a snowball affect, causing more and more choking, discouragement, and fear. To overcome past chokes, you need to be positive and resolve to improve your mental game. For example, after you choke in a game, you can think positively and tell yourself, "It's OK, everyone chokes occasionally. I will learn from this and bounce back!" This resilience will help you perform better in future pressure situations.

Lastly, I want to emphasize the importance of applying and practicing these tips. Just learning these tips is not enough. You have to practice them regularly so they become second nature during real pressure situations. Make a plan and choose a few of the tips listed above to use during your next game. The more prepared you are to use these tips in games, the more effective they will be.

Please read this book to learn even more about how to perform under pressure!