Living Fit: Why we ‘choke’ and tips on how to avoid it

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living-fit-buechler.jpgI just finished watching the Masters Tournament. I hope you saw it, too. I cringed as I saw Sergio Garcia miss a relatively easy putt on the 18th hole after Justin Rose did some choking of his own. Eventually, Sergio prevailed to be adorned with the coveted green jacket. Yet, I couldn’t keep from wondering how these two very talented professionals choked in areas that were easy, even by the standards of this girl who stinks at playing golf but loves to drive the beer cart.

Everyone has experienced this “low blow to the gut” feeling of choking under pressure. The school valedictorian who fails the simplest exam; a savvy salesperson who shanks a key presentation; or the kid at the free throw line who misses the shot with no time left on the clock, propelling the opposing team to victory. Each of these people suffered a glitch in their mental processing, resulting in suboptimal performance extending far beyond the obvious effects of a bad grade or losing a game. They also took a big hit to their self-esteem, doubting they have what it takes to succeed. Often, they give up, thinking they aren’t meant to do this job, take this class or play this sport.

Psychologists refer to choking as a “depletion of working memory.” That sounds much nicer, doesn’t it? Working memory is the part of our memory that keeps relevant information within easy reach and is critical to everyday activities.

What depletes our working memory? I’ll give you a hint: It’s a word that both starts and ends with the letter “S” and is non-discriminatory, affecting everyone, no matter their age, religion, social status, gender, race or favorite college team. It’s “stress.” Are you doomed to a life of continuous lashings from your family, friends and those hard-to-please people in your life who make you nervous over the simplest of tasks? No need to fear, I bring good news of great joy. Much like your house can be child-proofed, your memory can be stress-proofed!

Try one of these strategies for ensuring self-confidence and success despite the most stressful situations:

Positive self-affirmations. Take a few minutes each morning to audibly list your strengths to ensure a resilient, self-confident day. I say “audibly” because we are wired to be self-critical creatures. You berate yourself more than anyone else could possibly do. Stop doing that! It is important to hear your own voice say nice things about your abilities. If you’re shy about speaking aloud in front of your family (and most of us are), chat it up in the shower or in the car on your way to work. Repeat as often as needed during the day and night.

Purge your worries. At least once a week (some of us need it more often), write for 10 minutes about your biggest worries regarding an important performance or project. This applies to family life, too. When you empty your worries onto paper, it reduces the brain’s cognitive pressure and can lead to better working memory.

Breathe. Well, of course you breathe or you wouldn’t be reading this article. I mean really breathe! Do this for me right now (it’s OK, no one’s looking): put one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. Now take in a deep, deep, deep breath. What expanded? Your belly or your chest? If it’s not your belly, then you’re not truly breathing. Most people breathe from their chest, shrugging up their shoulders, holding onto stress. Let your stress out by using your diaphragm and belly to bring the air in and expel the stress out.

Walk away. I don’t mean ignore the situation, but rather step away from the issue that’s requiring you to feel on the verge of suboptimal performance. Walking away allows your brain to focus on something else so that you can approach the situation with a new angle and the self-confidence of success.

Reframe. Think of the stressor as a challenge instead of a threat. I know, I don’t work for your boss or live with your spouse (thank God!), but the next time your heart begins racing under the pressure of what you sense is an oncoming threat, refocus and use your racing heartbeat to power up your self-confidence and out-perform.

Practice. Obviously, we can’t practice some things but most situations can be thought through in advance to prevent you from choking under pressure. You may not know how the judge is going to react to your oral argument or what the partner-in-charge is going say about the memorandum you’ve just handed to her, but you can be sure to practice the potential stress-inducing diatribes about how inadequate you or your work product are. This will allow you to react in a more comfortable way as you stand in front of the firing squad.

Create an outline, either written or in your mind. Memorize the path you need to take in order to get to the end of the destination, noting a few main points under each heading.

Hopefully, one of these strategies will resonate with you and the various situations you face so that you will always be successful when the pressure is on. See you on the golf course. I’ll be driving the cart!•


Sharon Buechler is an attorney with Riley Bennett & Egloff LLP and a certified personal trainer, health fitness specialist, and life and wellness coach. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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