How to a avoid choking under pressure


In 9th grade I had to give a talk in my speech class. Speaking in front of a group was easy for me and I always did well.  On this particular day however the principal walked into the class, just as the teacher called on me!  I got so scared that I couldn’t remember any of my talk and just froze.  I was mortified.  To this day I am embarrassed when I think about my choking under pressure. 

Sian Beilock is a cognitive scientist who has studied why people choke when they are under pressure.  She says that we have two kinds of memory: working memory which we use when we are learning a new skill and procedural memory which we use when we are so proficient at the skill, we can do it without thinking about it.  Choking under pressure comes because we get anxious and want to do our best so we use the working memory rather than our procedural memory. That procedural memory is automatic and it doesn’t require us to think about it.  Thinking interrupts procedural memory

Here are 10 tips that Sian Beilock gave on the PBS program The Hidden Brain to avoid choking. To be happy at work you will want to use these tips before a presentation in front of your boss, your colleagues, your client or those in the C suite. (You can also use these tips to help your children when they play sports and their team or coach is focused on your child making an important play. Even star athletes sometimes choke under pressure))

  1. Practice doing well under pressure.  If you choke on exams, find a study group to work with and quiz each other about the material. Practice your talk or presentation in front other people.  Have a friend or coach ask you questions that an interviewer might ask. Ask your family to watch you practice before the big game so their attendance doesn’t make you nervous.
  2. Notice what you are feeling when you are under pressure and worried.  What do you feel when you are excited?  Often the feelings (heart pounding, sweaty hands, etc.) are the same.  Interpret the feeling as excitement not pressure.  This leads to a better performance.
  3. Focus on why you should succeed.  If you have studied a lot or practiced a lot, tell yourself “I know this better than anyone else.” 
  4. You have both procedural memory and working memory.  The procedural memory is basically autopilot. Your working memory is active and looking for something to do.  The last thing you want is to focus your working memory on the skill that is on auto pilot.  That causes you to choke so give your working memory something else to do so it won’t cause you to concentrate too much on what you already are an expert on. You can sing a song, read a poem, or solve a problem.
  5. Focus on breathing.  Breath slowly and deeply.  Calm down.  Take your mind off what you don’t want to focus your attention on (the skill that you have mastered).
  6. Think about a song that calms you.  Try “Take it Easy” or “I have confidence”
  7. Distract yourself immediately before the big event.  You can read a magazine, listen to music, draw something, or anything that takes your mind off what you are about to do.
  8. Journal your worries.  Make a list of all the things you are worried about.  Just as writing down everything you have to do frees your mind from worry about forgetting something, journaling helps to take your mind of worrying.
  9. Look for a supportive environment.  If you worry about people judging you then it can make your performance worse.  The environment has a big effect on how we feel so work on what you can do to keep the environment positive.
  10. Minimize the effect of mistakes.  It is not the end of the world.  Mistakes lead to growth and learning. 


If you are interested in someone listening to your presentation to your boss, a client, your colleagues or an interviewer, I would be happy to be that person. I can give you feedback and help you to develop a strategy to stay calm and to achieve your goal. To set an no obligation appointment to discuss this possibility call me at 781-598-0388 or email me at

For more information on this topic, listen to Sian Beilock’s TED talk:


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