Why Talented People Fail Under Pressure

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.

I choked.

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).


Pressure Doesn’t Have to Turn into Stress

When I was in my late twenties, I was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Doctors operated and told me to hope for the best. I returned to Japan, where I was working, and tried to forget about it. The tumors returned a year later, this time in my liver. After a long search, the surgeons found a new procedure to remove them, but I knew this was, again, perhaps only a temporary fix. I was a mess for the next six months. The hardest part of my illness was my constant anxiety about it coming back.

Then I met a man who changed my outlook. Dr. Derek Roger had spent 30 years researching why some people in difficult situations become overwhelmed, while others persevere. He taught me everything he’d learned, and as I started applying it, my anxiety subsided, even though my situation didn’t change. In fact, the cancer came back about five years ago and remains relatively stable in my liver. But I no longer worry about it. Derek became my mentor, and over the past 10 years we have trained thousands of leaders to overcome their stress.

The process starts with understanding that stress is caused not by other people or external events, but by your reactions to them. In the workplace, many people blame their high anxiety levels on a boss, job, deadlines, or competing commitments for their time. But peers who face the same challenges do so without stress. Derek and I often meet executives who have high levels of pressure but low levels of stress, and vice versa.

Pressure is not stress. But the former is converted to the latter when you add one ingredient: rumination, the tendency to keep rethinking past or future events, while attaching negative emotion to those thoughts. Of course, leaders must practice reflection — planning for the future or reviewing past lessons — but this is an analytical, short-term process, with positive fallout. Rumination is ongoing and destructive, diminishing your health, productivity, and well-being. Chronic worriers show increased incidence of coronary problems and suppressed immune functioning. Dwelling on the past or the future also takes us away from the present, rendering us unable to complete the work currently on our plates. If you ask ruminators how they are feeling, none will say “happy.” Most feel miserable.

To break this stress-inducing habit, Derek and I recommend four steps:

Wake up. People spend most of their day in a state called “waking sleep.” This is when you pull into the office parking lot but can’t remember the drive there, or when someone in a meeting asks for your opinion but you’ve missed the last few minutes of conversation. Since all rumination happens during this state, the first step is to break out of it. You can do this physically: Stand or sit up, clap your hands, and move your body. Or you can do it mentally: Connect with your senses by noticing what you can hear, see, smell, taste, and feel. The idea is to reconnect with the world.

Control your attention. When you ruminate, your attention gets caught in an unproductive loop, like a hamster on a wheel. You need to redirect yourself to areas in which you can take useful action. Here’s one exercise we encourage executives to use: Draw a circle on a page, and write down all of the things you can control or influence inside of it and all of the things you cannot outside of it. Remind yourself that you can care about externalities — your work, your team, your family — without worrying about them.

Put things in perspective. Ruminators tend to catastrophize, but resilient leaders keep things in perspective for themselves and their teams. We tell people to try three techniques: contrasting (comparing a past stress to the current one, i.e., a major illness versus a missed sale), questioning (asking yourself “How much will this matter in three years’ time?” and “What’s the worst that could happen?” and “How would I survive it?”) and reframing (looking at your challenge from a new angle: “What’s an opportunity in this situation I haven’t yet seen?” or even “What’s funny about this situation?”)

Let go. The final step is often the hardest. If it was easy to let it go, we would have done it already. We find that three techniques help. The first is acceptance: Acknowledge that whether you like the situation or not, it is the way it is. The second is learning the lesson. Your brain will review events until it feels you’ve gained something from them, so ask yourself, “What have I learned from this experience?” The third is action. Sometimes the real solution is not to relax, but to do something about your situation. Ask yourself, “What action is required here?

While struggling with cancer, it took me a couple of years to train myself to follow these steps. But ultimately it worked. My stress levels went down, my health improved, and my career took off. More heartening, I discovered that everything Derek had taught me could be taught to others, with similar results.

Nicholas Petrie is a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership and the lead researcher and creator of its Change Equation, which shows leaders how to change in ways that minmize stress and maximize results. He works with CEOs and their teams to create resilience strategies for organization.