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Choking Under Pressure

“Courage is grace under pressure.” – Ernest Hemingway

You’re set to make your big performance on stage. You’re in the finals of the Olympics. You’re about to win the $500 pool tournament at the local club. The pressure is on. Now it’s time to shine.

A switch turns on in your head. That little voice starts to tell you stuff like: “Don’t blow it, don’t blow it, don’t blow it.”.

What do you do?

You blow it. You stumble on the words. You run straight into the hurdle. You rip the felt. You choke. Big time.

Choking Tiger

Universal sign of choking.

So, what exactly happened there kid?

It wasn’t panic. You didn’t blank out. You had control of you mental faculties.

It was paralysis from analysis. You started focusing on the different parts that make up the whole. You started focusing on not screwing it up and trying to make sure that everything was perfect.

You’ve spent countless hours on perfecting the small things into a whole just to have it fall apart.

Lego

Blocks, blocks everywhere!

How come you handled it so well last time?

Think back to when you first started learning your craft. You had to divide it up into its smallest components and become proficient at each. Then you started combining the small bits into a whole. This is something called “chunking”.

When you’re “in the zone” or experience so called “flow” you go through a series of complex tasks (a chunk) without really thinking about it. It’s become a natural sequence of events thanks to all the work you’ve done. This is a good kind of auto pilot. Your body knows what to do, it runs the process.

When we start monitoring the process it’s interrupted and, well, you might as well cue up the Benny Hill-theme!

Benny Hill

Yakety Sax!

How can we handle it?

Some studies have shown that athletes and performers who have a belief in a higher power surrender their performance to it. If it’s meant to happen, it’s meant to happen. Que sera, sera. That takes the pressure off.

Another ways to lighten the pressure is to realize that it’s “just a game” or “this isn’t everything”. It might take a lot to believe and really feel it, but it could be helpful.

You could also try something that Gucciardi & Dimmock from the University of Western Austrial experimented with in 2008. While studying the phenomena of “choking” in experienced golfers they found an interesting technique. What they found was that focusing on a single syllable word that described the desired performance (fluid, strong etc.) the golfers performed better.

What happened was that they focused more on the process than the outcome (systems, not goals). They worked like a “distraction” so that players didn’t focus on their wrists or hips. The words were simple enough to interrupt the analysis but not so much that they distracted the players from the task at hand. This is something called “holistic cue words”.

Just Do It

Yeah, you could do that to I guess. Thanks Nike, you’re swell!

All these things are really good tools to have. I’d like to add just one more.

You know how when you’re really nervous or really excited you start to shake? Sometimes when we’ve been through something traumatic we experience the same thing.

When I suffered from panic attacks I could lie in bed and start to shake. Afterwards I felt relaxed and alright.

Our body seems to know what it’s doing, and there’s even a name for it.

It’s called TRE. It stands for Trauma & Tension Releasing Exercises. The military, police, firefighters and EMT’s among others use it to cope with stress and trauma.

I heard about it from a colleague but didn’t really look further into it until I heard this one man tell a story. He said that he’d seen two ducks fighting. After the fight he was amazed that they just flapped their wings, shrugged and went about their business. No shame, no guilt. This brought my mind back to TRE.

I went ahead and tried it and found it really useful! Even though i’m not in nearly as stressful environments.

A lot of artists, athletes and people in general might try to use therapy or other mental training to handle these things. But what if it sticks physically? Just like with chunking. You might not even be concious of how a previous “choke” has become a part of your programming.

I think that there’s great value in looking at how martial arts work. They usually connect the physical practice with spiritual and/or mental practice.

We might do well to do the same here. Even though it’s a mental block it might become physically present in your performance. I’ll have some links to videos about TRE after the quotes.

Shake it baby!

Quotations & Vibrations!

“Everyting negative – pressure, challenges – is all an opportunity for me to rise.” – Kobe Bryant

“I think every artist subconsciously wants to evolve themselves. Sometimes they get stuck in ruts because of pop culture, peer pressure, stuff like that. But what excites me most is exploring my own musical insights and expanding upon them.” – Steve Vai

“No pressure, no diamonds.” – Thomas Carlyle

“Because acting was my only professional outlet, I put a ton of pressure on the roles that I did. I overstepped my bounds, I tried to control things that were out of my purview as an actor and in some cases even tried to direct my scenes because I felt I knew how they should run rather than trust the director.” – James Franco

“When I was a teenager, my dad used to put a lot of pressure on me to be successful, and I’d really beat myself up about things like losing martial arts competitions.” – Dolph Lundgren

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