Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

7 Ways to Avoid Choking at Game Time

Every lawyer – and every law student, for that matter – has had the experience of taking a big exam, or standing up in the courtroom, or facing a deadline on a critical project and going completely blank.

You. Simply. Choke.

It’s one of the worst feelings in the world. And though of course, you want to do well at crunch time, wanting it too much can spell disaster.

“What may surprise you is that we often get in our own way precisely because our worries prompt us to concentrate too much,” cognitive scientist Sian Leah Beilock in this TED Talk. “When we’re concerned about performing our best, we may try and control aspects of what we’re doing that are best left on autopilot and outside conscious awareness. As a result, we mess up.”

Dr. Beilock, who is also the president of Barnard College, calls this phenomenon “over attention” – or paralysis by analysis. She says it can be avoided with the right kind of preparation.

Don’t Choke, Just Do

More than two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Horace said, “Don’t think, do.” And then, presumably, he sat down and – without choking – wrote one of his elegant Satires, Epistles or Epodes.

Athletes, actors and other performers have been telling themselves the same thing ever since. The problem, according to Dr. Beilach, can be found in our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls planning and decision-making.

“When the pressure’s on, we frequently try and control what we’re doing in a way that leads to worse performance,” she says.

Seven Tips for Not Choking

  1. Focus on something else. “We can do something as simple as singing a song or paying attention to one’s pinky toe — as pro golfer, Jack Nicklaus was rumored to do. Or, we can find some other mindless activity that can help take our minds off the details of what we’re trying to do.”
  2. Don’t overanalyze your behavior. In one experiment, Dr. Beilock instructed a group of young soccer players to pay attention to how their foot struck the ball. When they began consciously zeroing in on something they normally did unconsciously, their error rate soared.
  3. Close the gap between training and competition. Go visit the room where your oral argument will take place. Get used to how it feels to be there.
  4. Rehearse under game conditions. As you’re studying, close the book now and then and practice retrieving the answers from memory, Dr. Beilock suggests. Rehearse in front of other people, a mirror, or a video camera. “Our ability to become accustomed to what it will feel like can make the difference in whether we choke or we thrive.”
  5. Face your self-doubts. Write your worries down in a journal. Express what you most fear in words. If you off-load these thoughts from your prefrontal cortex in advance, they’re less likely to linger when the bell rings.
  6. Practice with others. There’s safety in numbers. The feedback you receive will come in handy later.
  7. Celebrate your wins. Success breeds success. As you grow in confidence, your brain will approach even daunting situations with a sense of mastery.


What tips do you suggest for not choking at big events?

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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