Performing under pressure

Dear colleagues,

Most people have had experiences of having to perform under pressure. It might be in a job interview, doing an important exam or speaking in front of a class or meeting.

Sometimes individuals are able to rise to the occasion and do as well as they are able. On other occasions, though, the stress is damaging and performance suffers, sometimes badly. This is called choking.

In competitive sport, there are some famous chokes. Australian golfer Greg Norman had the best average in the game for years, but regularly fizzled in the most prestigious tournaments. In the 1996 Masters tournament, he had built up a big lead going into the final round, but ended up losing. He tensed up and played far below his best.

Choking affects academic life in numerous ways. Students get scores to attend university by doing well in high school exams. Some students suffer stress more than others, doing far below their capability. This means that entering first-year students include some good test-takers at the expense of more knowledgeable students who suffer exam anxiety.

The same applies to undergraduates, some of whom perform suboptimally in class presentations and exams. You might say, "they have to learn how to perform under pressure", but what are we doing to help students make the most of their skills? If we set anxiety-inducing assignments, we owe it to students to help them perform at their best.

Sian Beilock is a cognitive scientist at the University of Chicago who researches performance in the face of stress and advises individuals and groups on how to perform maximally at crucial times. In her 2011 book Choke she gives an accessible account of research in the field, accompanied by practical advice.

One of the barriers to top performance is called a "stereotype threat". One common stereotype is that females aren't as good at maths as males. Research shows that many women, when reminded of this stereotype just before a stressful performance task, do worse - even when they don't personally believe in the stereotype. The women who are most affected are those who are best at maths.

It gets worse. When this stereotype is well known, anything that reminds a mathematically competent woman of her gender will hurt her performance. One study showed that on a standardised US calculus test, moving the personal identification section, in which candidates indicate their gender, from the beginning to the end of the test leads to significantly higher scores for women.

This research is scary. Any of us, as teachers, may have designed exams or assignments that inadvertently draw attention to stereotypes and thereby cause members of "equity groups", such as women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities, to do worse than otherwise.

Beilock spends a lot of time examining "working memory", which determines the number of things you can hold in your mind at the same time. If you are solving a maths problem, even just adding a list of numbers, it helps to hold intermediate results in your mind. The greater your working memory, the more difficult intellectual tasks you can handle.

Recently I was a subject in a psychology research project. To induce stress, I was asked to stand with my eyes open and count out loud backwards by 13s, starting at 8362, while being video-recorded. This continued for five minutes and if I made a mistake I had to start over. This task uses lots of working memory, to retain the four digits while performing successive subtractions.

The same applies when a student is trying to understand or explain complex social theories and apply them to case studies. Working memory is an asset for all sorts of conventional intellectual work - though not for creative thinking, where it can be a disadvantage.

The stereotype threat causes performance to suffer by siphoning off some portion of working memory to deal with the worry. Indeed, anything that distracts you from a task can use up working memory and reduce performance under pressure. Beilock examines various ways to deal with these challenges, giving practical examples. One of the most important ways to prepare is to practise under stress, in conditions as close to the performance situation as possible. Students who do practice exams will do better in actual exams. Job applicants who practise doing interviews will do better in actual interviews.

Practice is important, but so are lots of other things. Beilock gives a comprehensive list of tips for optimal performance under stress, including affirming your self-worth, writing about your worries, meditating, thinking of your positive dimensions, interpreting stress reactions as advantages, giving time for answers to come to you, querying stereotypes, looking to role models, writing down intermediate steps (to ease the pressure on working memory), and organising what you know. I won't try to describe all these. If you suffer significant performance anxiety, then read Choke.

To expand on just one of these tips, one important finding is that students who spend ten minutes before an exam writing about their worries do significantly better. This is the sort of tip all students should know about. Teachers could even build it into their exam planning, to help those who suffer exam anxiety to perform closer to their potential.

To make things more complicated, this advice applies to only one sort of stressful performance task, namely the sort in which you need to use your intellectual skills, drawing especially on the part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex. If you are trying to sink a putt in golf, like Greg Norman, the challenge is rather different. Too much thinking can reduce performance.

I've noticed this in performing clarinet solos, which can be stressful, especially in front of people I know. Sometimes I start thinking about simple things like fingerings, that are normally automatic, and as a result do worse than I ever do while practising at home.

Beilock says that for performing well-developed non-intellectual skills, the challenge is to allow automatic brain processes to proceed uninterrupted. Overthinking can be damaging to performance: "Paralysis by analysis occurs when you attend too much to activities that normally operate outside conscious awareness" (p. 246). Therefore, very different strategies can be used to prevent choking. For example, a distraction like music can use up some working memory and actually improve outcomes. The same applies to learning languages: restricting working memory can improve learning (pp. 95-96).

After describing research in this area, Beilock gives a summary of techniques for minimising chokes when performing non-intellectual tasks, including distracting yourself, going ahead without a pause (so you don't give yourself too much time to think), practising under stress, learning from failures but not dwelling on them, focusing on outcomes rather than mechanics, finding a key word (e.g. "smooth" for golf strokes) and focusing on positive outcomes.

Beilock notes that for motor activities in which skills become automatic, "the best players are usually not the best coaches" (p. 289). Instead, the best coaches are those who have more experience teaching, because they know how to communicate, not just how to do things.

Beilock has a chapter on "Choking in the business world", with special attention to job interviews. When hiring staff, the goal should be to choose the best person for the job, not just the best performer at the job interview. The advice given in Choke could be given to all interviewees, thereby levelling the playing field.

Even if you are cool and calm under stress yourself, plenty of people around you are subject to choking. Therefore it is highly worthwhile to study the findings in Choke and learn how people can use their brains to maximum capacity when it matters most.

Brian Martin
8 January 2012

Thanks to Paula Arvela, Jørgen Johansen and Rowena Ward for helpful comments on a

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