High achievers more likely to choke under pressure

When the pressure is on, why do we sometimes choke? Surprising studies reveal that high achievers, from top athletes to star students, are more likely to crack under pressure. A new book examines why and how to avoid it.

Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, says it's all in the brain. In her book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, she boils it down to this: under pressure, the prefrontal cortex (the very front part of the brain) stops working the way it should. And while high achievers are exposed to more high pressure situations, increasing their likelihood for choking, Beilock says that doesn't matter. It's because they are high in cognitive horsepower, which can collapse under fire.

"They feel a lot of pressure to succeed because they have high expectations, but also because they normally rely heavily on working memory that is really compromised under stress," Beilock explained in the book.

How to avoid choking? Beilock recommends practicing under stress, so you get used to the pressure. Even practicing under mild levels of pressure, such as with friends watching you, can be sufficient to help you when the real pressure hits.

Focus on the outcome, not the mechanics, adds Beilock. She also recommends writing down your thoughts and worries, to unscramble them from your brain. You can do this a few minutes before the event or in the days or weeks preceding if necessary.

To read Beilock's blog entry: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/choke/201008/rod-what-took-you-so-long

For more on the book: http://www.amazon.com/Choke-Secrets-Brain-Reveal-Getting/dp/1416596178