I recommend the book, Choke, by cognitive psychologist Sian Beilock. She offers a guided tour through the latest research that explains why we perform poorly when we are trying our best. For anyone who has blown a test, flubbed a crucial shot, froze in the middle of a speech or simply performed well below their capabilities, Beilock walks the reader through the various causes underlying performance failure leading us to some practical tips on what we can do to better to manage our brains.
Relying on brain research derived from the use of functional MRI technology along with laboratory studies examining cognitive processes, she presents empirical evidence that pieces together how specific regions of the brain function in high and low stress situations. Interestingly, many of the same physiological and cognitive reactions are responsible for choking across all performance situations—athletics, public speaking or the performing arts.
The primary strength of the book is her organization of the relevent research into an easily understandable narrative. For example, by offering a detailed explanation of working memory—a key brain function that mediates performance—readers can understand how too much thinking can disrupt performance under stress, especially for those gifted thinkers who are prone to overthinking. She also explains why procedural memory may be more important to athletics and performing arts because those activities rely more on sensory and motor areas of the brain rather than the pre-frontal cortex which emphasizes thinking and concentration. Procedural memory is more outside conscious awareness and promotes automacy which allows for an effortless flow of complex learned skills which is the foundation for optimal athletic and musical performance. Beilock makes a consistent effort, chapter by chapter, to tie the research findings to specific recommendations that can help the reader make necessary adjustments to improve their performance. As a performance psychologist, this information is tremendously helpful in my work with clients.
Beilock also finds explanations for choking in some less obvious places—like how boys and girls are taught to think about their abilities in math and science. She asks why there is such a gap between males and females in math achievement. Rather than endorsing the former president of Harvard (and ex-Obama economics advisor) Lawrence Summers’ belief that innate gender differences account for the disparity, she explains how the concept of stereotype threat—the pressure that comes with going against a cultural or gender stereotype—results in reduced performance for minorities and females. Pressure is not the friend of optimal performance, especially if one is not trained to handle it.
Besides creating a narrative thread through the complex research, the second strength of Choke is Beilock’s clear and engaging writing style. She’s personable, open and compassionate in her authorial voice. She straddles the roles of researcher and performance psychologist by reciting research findings and then offering easy to follow suggestions to the reader like in a self-help book. While some of the suggestions are obvious (always a possibility in applying psychological research), like pausing in the face of challenging problems, others, like distracting yourself before hitting a putt on the 18th green of a tournament might seem counter-intuitive but have been shown to be effective. Rather than reinforcing the common self-talk to just concentrate, Beilock suggests the solution may be closer to Nike’s advice to just do it.
However, readers should not expect a manual on peak performance training. Typical performance psychology topics like relaxation, self-talk, visualization, imagery and concentration are not formally addressed except where they may apply to specific research findings. The primary point of the book is to explain the choking phenomenon using brain research, not training the reader in optimal performance. As such, Beilock’s contribution is to provide lay and professional readers a foundation of knowledge about brain functioning as it relates to performance anxiety. Perhaps Sian Beilock’s next book could build on that foundation by focusing exclusively on applying that knowledge. And I already have a title in mind : CLINCH.