Perform under pressureHave you noticed how some people manage to do their best work when they perform under pressure?

They nail the job interview, ace the presentation and are always able to think on their feet.

Are you one of those people?

I’m not.

When I’m under pressure I struggle to do good work.

And sometimes, I do no work at all.

I freeze.

If you’re familiar with this experience then you will understand the frustration it causes. You know you’re capable of so much more. But you struggle to show your best work.

So why is this?

The Problem: Choking

The problem is more common than most people realise.

It’s called choking.

Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago psychologist and author of Choke, explains “Choking is performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past and occurs when you feel pressure to get everything right”.

Why does it happen?

Researcher Alison Wood Brooks, Ph.D., of Harvard Business School, explains that moderate amounts of pressure may enhance performance if it prompts thorough preparation. But if the pressure builds, our performance begins to decline, as we resort to anxiety avoidance strategies like procrastination.

When the pressure  reaches debilitating levels – it can result in choking.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

A high-pressure and stressful situation for one person, can be experienced completely differently by another.

Stress is the result of our perception.

The Role of Beliefs and Expectations in Determining Our Performance

Beyond skill, our beliefs about our abilities and expectations can affect our performance.

There are two main categories of performance-squelching beliefs.

The first is about how we see our own abilities and strengths.

Fixed Versus Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck, a professor at Standford University and author of Mindset: The Psychology of Success, shows how our conscious and unconscious beliefs have a profound impact on how we develop our strengths and abilities.

Her research shows that people fall into two categories: those with a fixed mindset and those with a growth mindset.

People with a fixed mindset believe that their strengths, intelligence and talents are fixed.

They’re more likely to shy away from challenges, and fear making mistakes. Their focus is on getting things right and view failure as a sign of a lack of innate talent or ability.

On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe that their talents and abilities can be developed. They seek out challenges and welcome feedback as an opportunity for growth.

They would rather try something that stretches their abilities so that they learn – and fail – than do something within their capability and succeed.

Anticipating Judgement

Then there is the second category of beliefs and expectations that affect performance: beliefs about how others will respond.

Here the research shows that people who commonly choke have a fear of negative evaluation.

This is fairly self-explanatory.

When people in a performance situation expect that they’ll be judged and even humiliated, they’re more likely to choke.

The ability to perform well under pressure and stressful circumstances is one of the most important skills we can develop.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t know how to do this. The good news is that it is possible to train ourselves to not only survive, but thrive under stressful circumstances.

How I Almost Choked While Writing This Post

I’ve recently started blogging.

This is an area I’ve been wanting to develop for a long time. But fear has held me back.

A few weeks ago, I took the plunge.

I posted a draft of a guest post that I was writing in the A List Blogging Masterclass Facebook group for review.

I was terrified, waiting to be shown up as an incompetent writer.

The opposite happened.

My post was well received and I got incredible feedback.

And two offers to guest post for successful blogs! Goodlife Zen was one of them.

I was overjoyed!

But you have probably already spotted the problem.

The pressure.

An invitation to write for this incredibly successful blog.

I wanted to do my very best work.

I wanted to show Mary that it was worth taking a risk with inviting me.

I tried to come up with an idea for a topic that would be useful for her readers.

But nothing came.

I was about to choke.

Luckily for me, something happened that helped me realise what I was doing.

An excellent blogger and friend, sent me a link to her new blog post.

I read it and responded to her:

“Love your post but I do have to confess that I’m finding it hard to read your work. I’m suffering from a serious case of writer’s envy!”

Her response was perfect:

“Don’t be envious, I can teach you how to write!”

Oh right, yes. Skills can be developed. Struggling doesn’t mean that I lack some sort of blogging gene.

The shift

When I looked at what I was doing with my writing through this lens, something shifted.

I realised that despite my conscious knowledge and beliefs that abilities could be developed, there was a deeper, more unconscious belief that my first post had been a fluke and that I would not be able to replicate that success.

The pressure was entirely self-generated.

Approaching it from a different angle, as an opportunity to grow and develop skills, rather than expecting myself to succeed and avoid failure, unlocked my creativity and allowed me to finish the draft.

Now over to you! Don’t just make this another blog post that you read and feel inspired but then do nothing about.

Make it count.

Take some time to share with us the areas that you struggle to perform and what beliefs hold you back.

Even just writing and sharing that is an important step in being able to shift those beliefs.

About the author 

Alison Breen is a psychologist who helps people make the best use of their strengths, talents and resources. Sign up for her free guide to increasing your productivity and impact at

Copyright: racorn / 123RF Stock Photo


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