When I was in high school, soccer was my life. I was one of the goalkeepers for the California state team, which was also part of the Olympic Development Program, and I knew the weight of my role. My ability to block a goal could make or break the game. And as confident as I was in my skill, the presence of the national coach at one of my games was enough to send me into a tailspin. I saw him watching me. I tensed up. I missed the game-deciding goal.
My story is not unique. Countless numbers of talented men and women have bombed a job interview, botched a presentation, or failed to make (or save) the winning shot when the pressure was on. In the wake of each of these scenarios, there’s something you’ll inevitably hear people say: They were too “in their head.” True as this may be, what does it really mean?
Your prefrontal cortex, found in the part of your brain situated right above your eyes, is the epicenter of our cognitive horsepower, powering our ability to focus on the task at hand. When we are performing our normal, practiced tasks everyday, we often are – counterintuitively — not paying attention to all the little details of what we are doing; our prefrontal cortex is running largely on autopilot. But in times of intense stress, like a playoff game, major presentation, or a job interview, your prefrontal cortex can go into overdrive. When the pressure is on, we often start focusing on the step-by-step details of our performance to try and ensure an optimal outcome and, as a result, we disrupt what would have otherwise been fluid and natural.
When the pressure is on, we tend to panic — about the situation, its consequences, and what others will think of us — and as a result we apply too much cognitive horsepower to what we are doing. We start overthinking something that usually comes naturally to us — in my case, defending my team’s goal.
So what can you do when your prefrontal cortex goes haywire like this?
First, when you’re about to go into a stressful situation where you have practiced the task at hand to perfection, don’t overthink what’s next. Five minutes before the big event is not the time to go over every detail of what you are about to do in your head. Instead, give yourself a moment to focus on something else. Do a crossword puzzle. Think about the vacation you’re taking next month. My guilty pleasure is to catch up on the latest People Magazine online. Do anything that will prevent you from dwelling too much on the details of what you are about to do.
If you notice that you are starting to overthink, try singing a song, repeating a one-word mantra, or focusing on the three key points you want to get across to your audience. These approaches use up that cognitive horsepower that could otherwise be used against you. In my research, for instance, I’ve seen highly skilled golfers sink more putts while actively using these methods. Let’s say you’re preparing for a job interview. You know your resume inside and out, and in normal circumstances, you can easily recount your strengths and accomplishments. But when you sit down in the interview chair, you freeze up. If you take time beforehand to occupy your prefrontal cortex with unrelated activities, you’re less likely to overthink in the moment and more likely to be able to communicate your message effectively.
You can also remind yourself that those physical symptoms before an important event — for example, sweaty palms or a racing heart — are good signs. They mean you are ready for the challenge that lies ahead. Research shows that reframing these sorts of physiological responses from a negative to a positive can help people put their best foot forward when it matters most.
Of course, you can’t burst into song during the middle of an interview. And when you’re sitting across from your boss during a big meeting or presentation, you can’t ask them to join you in repeating your mantra. In moments when you need to be more discreet, try these internal tactics to keep your prefrontal cortex engaged. Focus on the most important point you need to get across. And when you find yourself starting to monitor every word coming out of your mouth, think about your pinky toe instead — a technique a sports psychologist told me famed golfer Jack Nicklaus used on the green to prevent over-focusing on simple putts.
All of these techniques will only help you if you are well prepared. Of course, distracting yourself when you don’t have your presentation down won’t save you. It’s crucial to replicate and practice under similar conditions. For example, if you are taking a professional development exam, practice tests are the best way to mimic that type of environment. Similarly, you can time yourself as you practice questions at home to recreate a testing environment. For scenarios that aren’t solo endeavors — like a presentation or interview — you can ask a small group of coworkers to help you do a test run. If you don’t have a makeshift audience, record yourself practicing your remarks or rehearse them in front of a mirror. By doing your own run-through, you’ll alleviate some of the stress when the big moment comes.
And lastly, if you do choke, remember: It’s not the end of the world. You might be disappointed and even embarrassed, but like most things in life, it’s a learning experience. Take the opportunity to learn how to better handle the stress next time.
Sian Beilock is the president of Barnard College, a cognitive scientist, and author of two books — Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have To (2010) and How the Body Knows Its Mind: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel (2015).