This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David
Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is
one component of the Information Age Education project. See
and the end of this newsletter.
"How can you think and hit at the same time?" (Yogi Berra; American League baseball player and manager; 1925–.)
Performing Well And Choking Badly Under Pressure
I (Bob) was comfortably into my conference presentation with a
receptive audience when my wife, brother, and sister-in-law
unexpectedly entered through the back door. They waved and sat down. I
knew that my brother and his wife were driving to San Diego to have
dinner with us, but it was distracting to try to imagine why they had
arrived so early and to simultaneously continue with my presentation.
continued on—to laughter. I stopped with a quizzical look, and someone
said, “You repeated what you had just said.” I smiled, introduced my
family, and blamed my gaffe on their unexpected entrance. It gave me a
few seconds to mentally regroup, but things went downhill after that. I
don't typically use notes and so found myself worrying that I would
mess up the planned sequence and forget key words. I easily responded
to questions folks raised, but felt the planned part of my presentation
The post session comments and written
evaluations were basically positive, but several evaluations mentioned
the distraction and subsequent shift in fluidity. What happened? Why
would such a minor (actually pleasant) event so distract me?
Choking Up When Performing
What happened to me and countless others is the focus of an interesting informative book by Sian Beilock, Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to
(2010). Beilock is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of
Chicago who focuses on high stakes performance—primarily what causes
people to perform well below or well above expected levels in response
to a potential stressor.
Her book provides (1) an excellent
non-technical explanation of the underlying neurobiology of high stakes
performance in such areas as tests, sports, music, business, and
sexuality, and (2) useful practical advice on how to perform
effectively in such situations.
Many of the practical hints
on how to avoid choking up have long been embedded in professional
folklore. Examples include: to practice in conditions that resemble the
performance setting as much as possible; to take a break and regroup
when we're bogged down by a problem that might benefit from a fresh
perspective; and to focus on the outcome rather than the dynamics of
the activity. Beilock's book connects such conventional wisdom with the
relevant cognitive systems and their dysfunctions.
The Cognitive Systems
Attention, our brain's focusing system, is activated by the emotional
arousal of a salient environmental change. We can zoom in our attention
to examine a presumed key part of the challenge or zoom out to focus on
the broader context.
memory is a major principally frontal lobe element of intelligence, and
especially of abstract thought and rational decision. It's the part of
our overall attention and memory systems that allows us to consciously
hold in mind a limited amount of important information while we're
simultaneously doing something else, such as for the driver to maintain
an itinerary in mind while carrying on a conversation with others in
Performance is predicated on the smooth retrieval
of relevant information from two separately processed memory systems.
Consciously processed declarative memories contain general or
autobiographical factual information that can be linguistically
expressed. Unconsciously processed procedural memories (which can't be
linguistically expressed) are mastered skills, such as riding a bicycle
or playing Chopin's Minute Waltz.
Beilock considers a
temporary dysfunction in working memory to be an important element in
choking, and I suspect that's what happened to me. With a comfortable
knowledge of my field, I had discovered that doing presentations
without notes forced me to focus my mind on my presentation, but it
also enhanced the improvisation that results from audience involvement.
Audience questions typically don't distract, because they're within the
context of the presentation. Conversely, my family's entrance wasn't in
context. It overloaded the system by using my limited working memory
space to process an event that was irrelevant to my presentation.
Many things can lead to choking, but two predominate:
can result from thinking too much about something that should normally
be processed automatically, such as shooting free throws in basketball.
Beilock calls it paralysis by analysis.
can be equally bad—to not devote enough conscious attention to what
we're doing in a situation that might need some improvisation, but
rather to rely instead on established routines that may be
inappropriate to the situation.
Racial, gender, and
intelligence stereotypes also figure prominently. Your authors
recognize that they are sometimes stereotyped as being “ivory tower egg
heads.” Beilock hypothesizes that being the object of stereotyping can
affect one's performance at a subconscious level. She notes that people
who worked hard to overcome a stereotype and reach star status in their
field sometimes falter at the worst possible moment, such as during the
Olympics or other championship events. They suddenly think about their
stereotype and then doubt their capabilities.
recounts a story about Jason Kidd, the point guard of the 2011 NBA
Champion Dallas Mavericks. Kidd was very highly recruited out of high
school, but it took him several attempts to reach the minimum SAT score
necessary to enter UC-Berkeley as a student. His playing skills led to
his selection as National Freshman Player of the Year.
an important conference game that year, Kidd, an excellent free throw
shooter, was distracted while shooting two pivotal free throws by a
large stereotypic sign about the intelligence of athletes that opponent
fans held in his line of vision: “Hey Kidd. How do your spell S-A-T?”
He missed both free throws.
A recurring stereotype is that
females don't do as well as males in mathematics. Many girls grow up in
environments in which they “learn” at a deep level that girls are not
good at math. However, results from the difficult high stakes test for
high school students in the prestigious American Mathematics
Competition present a different picture. The boys who scored very high
came from a wide variety of schools from across the country, but the
girls came from a small set of elite high schools. Indeed, as many
girls came from the top 25 scoring AMG schools as from all the rest of
the US high schools combined. The difference is that the elite schools
didn't perpetuate the stereotype, but rather gave girls the
encouragement and opportunity to excel in math. For more information
about girls and math, see the article Large study shows females are equal to males in math skills (Moursund, 2010).
You have heard about test anxiety and that some people are much better
at taking tests than others. One of your authors (Dave) and his wife
Sharon frequently talk about this. Both Dave and his wife have
doctorates and have had long, highly productive careers. Dave notes
that he was very good at taking tests, and that he frequently performed
better on a test than he would have in a non-test environment. Sharon
is just the opposite. She frequently choked on tests and her grades
often reflected this performance challenge.
all know that the map is not the territory, and that test scores and
ability to perform well in other environments are two different things.
Schools provide students with many of the kinds of knowledge and
skills they'll need in adult life, but such resources accomplish little
if we don't also teach students how to perform effectively with them.
Subjecting students to high stakes testing programs can have a
concomitant value if we help them master test-taking skills that
they'll need in one form or another throughout life. The secondary
school extra-curricular programs in many respects do a better job of
teaching performance pressures than the regular curriculum, which tends
to focus on paper/pencil performance. Beilock's book provides much
useful information about how to help students and adults perform
effectively when the stakes are high.
Beilock, S. (2010) Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to. New York: Free Press.
We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and discussions pertaining to this newsletter. Please refer to the form below. About Information Age Education, Inc.
Information Age Education is a non-profit organization
dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world.
Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address http://IAE-pedia.org,
a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, a Blog
and the free newsletter you are now reading.
To subscribe to this twice-a-month free newsletter and to see back
issues, go to http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.
To change your address or cancel your subscription, click on the
“Manage your Subscription” link at the bottom of this e-mail message.