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Advice

Why People Choke—and How to Prevent It From Happening to You

April 11, 2016

What we can learn from Jordan Spieth's Masters performance

Jordan Spieth went into the final day of the Masters with what appeared to be an insurmountable lead—until he blew it in the last nine holes, ultimately losing to Danny Willett.

Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and author of the book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, says she wasn’t surprised to see Spieth give up his lead—and his shot at back-to-back Masters wins. “Looking nervous, anxious, fidgeting, are all telltale signs that someone is on a downhill spiral,” she told Motto. “Jordan Spieth looked visibly unsettled yesterday, and we often see this in athletes and others who are choking.”

We spoke with Beilock to learn more about why choking happens—and what you can do to prevent it from happening to you.

Motto: Why do people typically choke?
Beilock: People worry about the situation, its outcome and what is on the line. These worries can be distracting. These worries can also lead us to pay attention—often in too much detail—to what we are doing. When we dwell on aspects of our performance that usually operate outside conscious awareness (like when we think about every word coming out of our mouth or focus on every detail of that 3-foot put we could make in our sleep), we can actually screw ourselves up.

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What do people often misunderstand about choking?
People often think we are born “chokers” or “clutch players.” I don’t think it’s true. Michael Jordan was amazing on the basketball court, but he didn’t do so well on the baseball diamond. We can learn how to perform better under pressure, and we can also crumble after a stellar past performance. Just look at Spieth last year.

What can we do to prevent cracking under pressure?
Close the gap between practice and competition. Practicing under stress can help you get used to high-stakes situations so competition isn’t something you are afraid of. This sort of practice doesn’t have to be exactly the same as the real high-stakes event. Even practicing under a little bit of stress (say, with your friends watching) can help you become accustomed to performing your best when it matters most.

Read more: 8 Ways Mentally Strong People Prevent Stress From Dragging Them Down

Let’s say it’s too late and you’ve already choked—what’s the best way to respond and bounce back?
Don’t dwell. Change how you think about your past performance. Your failures are a chance to learn how to perform better, to think about what you might do differently the next time around. When you think too much about what went wrong, it can send you into a helpless state, which makes it hard to get motivated for the future.

What can we learn from Spieth’s experience?
No one is infallible. But the good news is that there is a toolbox of techniques that have been developed (based on what we know about how the brain and body operate) to help you perform the best when it matters most. We all might have days like Spieth did yesterday, but we can certainly work to prevent them.