Choking under pressure: how you can spot it before it happens, and what you can do about it…

Think to yourself, ‘have I ever been neurotic about anything?’. Chances are there has been a moment in your life where the answer is yes. Does this make you a neurotic person? Probably not. Don’t get me wrong, there are some people who are permanently neurotic – they happen to have that kind of personality type (in psychology this is called trait neuroticism). Most people though are neurotic sometimes because the situation they happen to be in pushes them into a temporary state of neuroticism (also called state neuroticism), which leads to high levels of anxiety.


It is in this neurotic state where people can choke when put under pressure. Think of exam situations or any situation where the pressure has been on. Several studies have proved that people in a neurotic state are way more likely to choke under pressure1.

But what are the signs that someone is in a neurotic state? Once we spot the signs, what do we can to try and drag someone (or ourselves) back from the brink of neuroticism, so that they (we) will have a better chance of succeeding in a high-pressure situation?

The signs:

  1. Negative self-talk

Neurotics will be the first people to start beating themselves up if they don’t get something right the first time. Even if it looks like something has gone really well, look out for something talking to themselves in a negative way, or beating themselves up because they ‘should have done better’.


  1. Criticism of others

They will also tend to transfer that negative self-talk onto others. They will be the people who talk about how other people don’t do it very well; they may even become bitchy about other people.

  1. Protective body language

There are 3 signs that someone is being dragged into a neurotic state that you can tell by simply glancing at their body language.

28124560_10155960707458260_431018720_oHands in front of the body means that they are being protective of their major organs; creating an imaginary barrier between themselves and the world/situation they are feeling threatened by.


file0002062790027Wiping the hands down the face is a sign that they are wiping away imaginary tears from the face or eyes, a sign that they are getting very upset about something!



downloadTouching/pulling at/near the collarbone means that they are literally getting hot under the collar, and are very uncomfortable in the situation that they are in.



So now we know the signs, what can we do about it?

  1. Give people time.

Picture1If we can give people just a little bit more time to chill out, that will significantly decrease their chances of choking under pressure. A study2 conducted on high-level professional footballers showed that players who waited for less than 1 minute before taking a penalty kick scored 56% of the time, compared to an 80% success rate when they took more than 1 minute.


  1. Focus on the process, not the outcome

Picture2Several psychology studies have shown that when people focus on the process of completing a task, rather than the outcome of that task, they perform better. One example of this was a study done at the University of Cambridge3; their researchers paid some people £5 to complete a maze, and another group of people £0.05 to complete the same maze. They found that people who were paid less money fared better on the maze. Why? Because they were less focused on the money (the outcome) than the process of completing the maze.

  1. Leave the room.

Picture4Have you ever walked into a room and forgot why you went in? It’s a very common phenomenon, and it happens because of the way the brain creates and stores memories. A famous study4 showed that when people walk through doorways, their memory ‘resets’. To fully appreciate this, we need to delve a little bit into how memories are created and stored. Memories are a lot like an Instagram story, or chapters of a book. They are stored in little chunks, and when we walk through doorways this starts a new ‘Instagram story’, or ‘memory chapter’. This gives us a chance to reset our feeling and emotions and can decrease temporary states of neocriticism. It is important to note that this happens with short-term memory only (hence the forgetting why you came into the room, but not forgetting your name and age), as long-term memories (that are converted from long-term to short-term memory in the sleep, but that’s another story) are stored in a different part of the brain and not affected.

The bottom line.

If you are a little neurotic before something major, then trying one or all of these 3 tools may lower your anxiousness levels down to a point where you are less likely to choke under pressure. If you are a facilitator, or even a friend of someone who is in this situation, you can use the tools at the beginning of this article to keep an eye on them, and then use the tools at the end of the article to help them come back into a place where they are less likely to choke under pressure. What these tools definitely will not do is push you further into a neurotic state and make your chances of choking higher, so in other words, what do you have to lose by giving these a go!



  1. Beilock, S.L. and Carr, T.H., 2001. On the fragility of skilled performance: What governs choking under pressure?. Journal of experimental psychology: General130(4), p.701.
  2. Jordet, G., Hartman, E. and Jelle Vuijk, P., 2012. Team history and choking under pressure in major soccer penalty shootouts. British Journal of Psychology, 103(2), pp.268–283.
  3. Mobbs, D., Hassabis, D., Seymour, B., Marchant, J.L., Weiskopf, N., Dolan, R.J. and Frith, C.D., 2009. Choking on the Money. Psychological Science, [online] 20(8), pp.955–962.
  4. Radvansky, G., Krawietz, S., and Tamplin, A. (2011). Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Further explorations. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 64(8), 1632-1645



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