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Choke: The Secret to Performing Under Pressure, By Sian Beilock

Calming words for the panic-stricken

Choking is the failure to perform at your best in high-pressure situations – on the sports pitch, in exams, on-stage, during a business presentation, wherever.

Sian Beilock's fascinating book outlines where and why people do it (causes can vary), why some are more liable to crack than others, and how to minimise the risk that you'll be among them.

Unsurprisingly, there's a whiff of self-help about the book, most evident in the grey boxes that litter the text, repeating and highlighting key messages. It is, however, genuinely helpful. I now understand why I perform comfortably in academic tests yet make like peanut brittle in music exams, and have some idea of what to do about it.

More significant are the wealth of research methods and findings that Beilock packs in, and the extensive educational and political implications of these. A big chunk of Choke is devoted to exploring why, in the US, bright girls tend to underperform in key science and maths tests. As a result, many girls miss out on places at top universities, despite the fact that: "When the SAT-M [SAT Reasoning Test – mathematics] scores of boys and girls are matched, girls go on to earn higher grades in university-level maths classes than their male counterparts."

Research suggests that much of girls' underperformance in these tests is due to the energy their brains divert into countering the still widely accepted stereotype that boys are better at maths and science than girls. Just "being stereotyped negatively is enough to drive down performance" and the effect of this "stereotype threat" is most marked in girls with the most aptitude for – and interest in – the subjects. The cure can be strikingly simple. When students are given information suggesting that one sex (or ethnic group) will best the other, that's what happens. When they're told a test is gender- (or race-) neutral, they'll achieve equally. Overall, "the elimination of the boy-girl maths test gap appears to stem from the improvement of the role of women in society".

The same holds true for ethnicity. In one experiment, the performance of (very bright) African-Americans taking a test was much worse than that of their white counterparts before Obama became a presidential candidate. Once he was inaugurated as President "their scores no longer differed substantially from whites'."

Choke is US-focused, but its lessons are equally applicable to the UK. Read it, especially if you work in education or are training to teach.

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