How to overcome the jitters and not choke

I recently came across a graduation speech by the valedictorian of a university law school.  He began his remarks by acknowledging that he had difficulty deciding what “wisdom” to impart to his fellow graduates.  He said he had consulted several quotation books and speaker’s guides but had come away uninspired.  He reviewed all the cases of law the class had studied and had found nothing that he felt was appropriate on such an important occasion.

At a loss for any inspiring thoughts, he sat down at his kitchen table eating biscuits.  And right in front of him on the opened roll of refrigerated biscuit dough, he spotted the belief that he knew he and his fellow graduates had in common and that he felt was worthy of the occasion.  The package, he said, had this message, “Keep cool.  But do not freeze.”  And with that he thanked all assembled and returned to his seat, amid rousing applause.

Freezing up – also referred to as choking – in important situations happens to all of us.  We regularly hear about golf superstars who blow a tap-in putt or $16 million-a-year basketball players missing a crucial shot.  

Choking also happens many times in business.  How about the seasoned sales rep that botches a million-dollar sale?  Or the customer service rep that makes a problem worse rather than fixing it?

Many times choking is triggered by thinking too much.  Now neuroscience explains why.  We used to assume that if the incentive is increased, the will to perform will automatically increase.  Not so, according to a study that appeared in the journal “Neuron.”

A simple arcade game was used for the test.  At first, performance steadily improved as incentives increased.  The extra money proved motivating.  But this effect only lasted for a little while.  Once the rewards passed a certain threshold, scientists observed a surprising decrease in success.  The extra cash hurt performance, and the subjects began to choke.  Brain activity became inversely related to the magnitude of the reward.  Bigger incentives led to less excitement.

The study stated that:  “The subjects were victims of loss aversion.  That’s the well-documented psychological phenomenon that losses make us feel bad more than gains make us feel good.  Instead of being excited by their future riches, the subjects were fretting over their possible failure … they care too much.  They really want to win, and so they get unravelled by the pressure of the moment.  The simple pleasures of the game have vanished … The fear of losing is what remains.”

That attitude is completely counterproductive.  One of my favorite aphorisms is “If you want to triple your success rate, you have to triple your failure rate.”  Fear of failure is paralyzing.  It prevents you from taking the risks necessary to succeed spectacularly.

If you “choke” when you’re in the spotlight or you start shaking, blushing or having shortness of breath when you’re on stage, check out the story by Karen Haywood Queen in “Better Homes and Gardens” about pianist Miriam Elfstron.  She suffered the jitters so bad that she had to wear mittens all day the days of her performances because her hands shook and became cold.  Eventually, her piano instructor taught her how to control her anxiety.  Her recommendations included:

  • Think positively.  Practice making positive statements about what you are doing and avoid using negative words or self-talk.  For instance, say “I am confident,” not “I don’t feel nervous.”
  • Practice performing through the inevitable slips.  It’s a performance.  If you mess up the world won’t come to an end.  Get comfortable recovering from slips and memory lapses.
  • Practice in front of smaller groups first.  Don’t perform for the first time for a crowd of 500.  It’s too much pressure.
  • Reduce muscle tension to reduce mental tension.  It’s all connected, so if your body is relaxed, there’s a good chance your mind will be relaxed as well.
  • Adopt a ritual.  Carry a lucky charm.  Wear your lucky shoes.  Touch your nose before you begin.  Dribble the ball three times before the game starts, like Michael Jordan.  Whatever works for you is OK.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist.  Don’t visualize a perfect performance, because then you will feel like you’ve failed if you make even a small mistake.  Instead, picture a performance where you do well by overcoming small obstacles along the way. 


Mackay’s Moral:  Don’t let choking suck the life out of your career.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *