The life-saving Heimlich maneuver can help a person who is choking due to something stuck in the throat, but what do you do for brain choking? Millions have observed this phenomenon in the unexpected catastrophes of Olympic trials and in high-stakes sports events. Also known as paradoxical performance effects, it describes a person’s poor personal performance when under pressure, despite striving and incentives for superior performance. Choking under pressure is associated with four variables: audience presence, competition, performance-contingent rewards and punishments, and ego relevance of the task.
The neurophysiology of choking begins in the brain. It’s triggered when you get so anxious that you try to seize conscious control over a task that should be executed automatically; you fail to trust your highly-honed skills. Don’t confuse this with panic. According to social commentator Malcolm Gladwell, panic involves too little thinking while choking represents too much thinking.
To avoid choking at that crucial moment, try using the STP antidote:
- Stay in the moment. Think about what you need to do now—not about what just happened or even about the finish. Breathe slowly and relax your muscles for a moment to help you refocus.
- Take control of your mindset and self-talk. Imagine only what you want to do and what you want to have happen. Tell yourself: “Jack, trust your brain. It’s got this.” Or “Jill, you are smooth and relaxed.”
- Perform with pleasure. Trust your brain and body and the skills you have honed. Remember how much you love what you are doing. Have fun and enjoy it!