Dr. Sian Beilock’s book, “Choke What The Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To” takes a look into the science of why people choke under pressure. Dr. Beilock is a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and one of the world’s leading experts on the brain science behind “choking under pressure” and factors influencing all types of performance from test-taking to public speaking to athletic pursuits. Dr. Beilock runs the Human Performance Lab at the University of Chicago and her work is to ask questions about how people get good at what they do. “We are particularly interested, not only in the building blocks of expertise, but why sometimes folks just aren’t able to pull out their best performance when it matters most.”
Examiner: I have to say you have a very cool job. I think it would be a lot of fun.
SB: It is a lot of fun.
Examiner: Growing up you played on an Olympic Development soccer team and in college played lacrosse. Were there any choking events in your life that planted the seeds of motivation to explore this area of cognitive science?
SB: I definitely experienced situations where I didn’t perform up to my best and so I’ve always been very interested in what makes that happen. Why sometimes you can pull out your best performance, why sometimes you can’t, why some people seem to be able to consistently and others don’t. I wanted to better understand how we get to play and perform at our best.
Examiner: What do you believe are the qualities of mental toughness in an athlete?
SB: The first thing I would say is that I don’t think you are born or made mentally tough. I think that we learn how to put our best foot forward when it matters most and that’s something we can all learn to be better at. I don’t think that people walk into the world mentally tough in that way. Just like we’ve practiced the rest of our skills in whatever sport we are playing we get better at performing the mechanics and everything else necessary to be performed. We have to practice being able to pull those skills out in mentally stressful situations. So being able to perform at the same level in all sorts of situations might characterize someone who’s mentally tough. Not being swayed by whether it is a high stakes championship versus a really important practice.
Examiner: Would you describe this as a person that is focused in the moment of the activity they are doing?
SB: I would say the person that is able to pull out what they need to pull out when it matters most.
Examiner: What is the self-affirmation condition?
SB: There is research showing that when people think about situations and like positive qualities of themselves or can recall situations where they can perform well, it serves to buffer them against stressful situations. Some of this work has been done in school settings where researchers have students think about all different sorts of aspects of themselves that are really important to them and talk about why they are important to them. Maybe they see themselves as a good friend or a good athlete, or a good cook. They like these things about themselves and it turns out when you focus on all these different aspects of yourself that are essentially important to you it often makes you succeed in whatever you are doing.
Examiner: Explain that a bit more.
SB: If you feel psychologically taxed, or down on yourself because you haven’t performed as well as you wanted to, thinking about other aspects of yourself, where you succeed, that you value, can be enough to buffer you and seep over to benefit your performance in whatever you are doing.
Examiner: Parents of young athletes are frequently seen pacing the sidelines of their child’s sporting event or grimacing when their child makes an error. The child is often aware of what is transpiring on the side-lines. Do you feel that pressure from parents/coaches add to the “choking” issue in youth sports?
SB: Yeah, there is lots of research showing that you can feel pressure from all situations. Often you feel it most from people who are supportive. It’s great to shine in front of your friends, family and parents but it’s also a lot worse to fall flat on your face. So knowing that they are having some sort of negative reaction can be a lot of pressure.
Examiner: What are some recommended guide-lines for parents and coaches?
SB: As a parent or coach one thing to think about is that this is just one performance in the child’s life. If you can use it as a learning experience and you can express to the child that this how they performed in one particular situation isn’t indicative of who they are as an athlete or as a person.
Examiner: The subpar performance isn’t what the child will necessarily do going forward. It can be improved.
SB: Yeah, one thing that parents/coaches can do is use the moment. Often when people perform poorly especially when it’s in a stressful situation or important sporting event they can make it into a testament to themselves, “Oh I don’t play well under pressure. Or I guess I’m not as good as I thought I was.” But instead think about this as maybe, “I didn’t put in the practice I needed to or maybe there is something I could have changed in this situation.” You can use the experience to think about how you will prepare for and perform differently the next time.
Examiner: In some situations it is useful to think constructive or reframe negative thoughts after making an error. Other times not thinking just reacting to the situation is useful. In either of these situations how important is it to link a physiological response such as, The Quieting Response, or deep balanced breathing?
SB: That’s interesting. Often times I talk about practice situations is the time you really want to think through what you are doing if you need to tweak something like the mechanics of what you are doing. The game situation is when your goal is not necessarily to change how you are performing but to pull out that optimal level of performance. I think there are different ways of thinking often times for practice and games. If you make an error and you have something you do as a way to refocus yourself, like taking a breath, that can be beneficial to the extent that it cues you as to how you need to react to get back into the game.
Examiner: I was thinking of the autonomic nervous system. If I am not breathing or not breathing fully this is going to affect the oxygen level going to my muscles and my brain. It’s going to affect how I think, how my body and mind communicate. I was wondering if your research explored this.
SB: We haven’t looked at that. I think it’s a really interesting issue. Some of my work suggests that one of the most important things is how you are interpreting those physiological responses. For example you can have a rapid beating heart and sweaty palms but if you interpret this as a sign that you are there for a challenge, that you’ve woken up and you are bringing your “A game" to the table that can lead to a completely different performance than if you interpret it as a sign that you are about to fail. A lot of it has to do with how we cognitively interpret these bodily reactions. When you make an error your heart rate goes up. If you can learn to interpret that as “Okay I’m paying attention. I’m ready to change this the next time around.” Rather than, “I’m going down hill.” It can make a big difference.
Examiner: What are your thoughts about virtual reality as a training tool for the future?
SB: I think it’s an interesting question. We don’t use it in the work that we are currently doing, our lab is mostly focused on cognitive training. But to the extent that you might be able to better mimic some of the situations you would experience when you are actually in a competitive situation or some other highly stressful situation it could be very useful.
Examiner: Do you predict it as a technology coming into this field?
SB: I think what’s more important than flashy technology is a good theory behind what you are doing with it. There is research showing that you can inoculate people or habituate them to some of the bodily experiences they’ll have in these stressful situations, that can be beneficial. Maybe doing this in virtual reality could be one way to get at this. But I think there are lots of tools we can use to help people perform better. Some of the tools are actually surprisingly simple.
Examiner: Sally is a junior tennis player (14 yrs old) is not seeded. She is playing Carly the fourth seed (14 yrs old). Sally has never beaten Carly but she wins the first set then thinks to herself, “Hey I may beat the fourth seed.” From this awareness she begins to make errors and proceeds to lose the second set. Sally has been in this situation, wins the first set then folds, several times before. What types of refocusing would be helpful for Sally after she has interrupted the flow she had going on in this match?
SB: This a great situation because it doesn’t have to just happen from Sally’s awareness that she could win. It could happen in all sorts of situations such as “Hey someone may see me succeed or someone may see me fail.” In my book, “Choke” I talk about lots of techniques players can use in the moment to refocus on what they are doing whether it’s singing a song or focusing on one component of their stroke that incapsulates the entire move which prevents them from over analyzing what they are doing in the moment. One idea is that we are limited capacity creatures. We can only focus on so many things at once so harnessing the focus on the next shot, where you want it to land, or that one key word associated with your stroke means you don’t have as much room to have your thoughts go astray.
Examiner: Those specific skills need to occur in practice not just in the moment when the person is competing.
SB: Exactly. You need to learn to use the skills and get used to using them. In an optimal situation you would get to practice under a little bit of stress where you could start using them as a way to get back on your game, or remain focused.
Examiner: A coach working with Sally could set up a practice situation where if Sally’s serve has a tendency to become shaky under pressure present pressure scenarios. For example, she is winning 2-0 in a set but she only gets one serve each time she is the server.
SB: Yes, or put something on the line that is fun. Something where she would get used to a little bit of stress. We are great at learning by analogy and just a little bit of stress can get us used to the really important situations.
Examiner: Where can people find out more about your book, the research you are working on and upcoming events?
SB: The best way to find out more information is www.sianbeilock.com
Examiner: Do you have any favorite quotes, stories or tips that have influenced your professional career?
SB: Yogi Berra always said, “How can you hit and think at the same time?” It really gets at this idea that when you start paying too much attention to those aspects of what you are doing, which should really just be on auto pilot in the moment, it can be really counter productive.
Examiner: Anything you would like to add?
SB: One thing I’ve really learned from my work and the work of my colleagues, and I said this in the beginning but I’ll say it again, you don’t come into this world a choker vs. a non choker. Performing under pressure is something you learn. I am sure there are exceptional world class athletes that break records in practice but being able to put that best foot forward when it matters most is what really separates those whom we talk about from those maybe we don’t. I think we can learn how to do this and that’s what I talk about in my book “Choke.” There is a tool box of techniques that we can all employ in whatever we are doing so that we can shine when all eyes are on us.
Examiner: Dr. Beilock thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to share your ideas and research performing under pressure.