There are research-backed ways to use your stress and nerves to your advantage.
As the U.S. Open advances this week, there are sure to be unexpected upsets and victories. Just in the first round, Rebeka Masarova of Spain, who is ranked 71st, pulled off a major upset by knocking out No. 8, Maria Sakkari of Greece.
When things don’t go as planned, it can be hard to know why. “It’s not a lack of effort, for sure,” Sakkari said after her first-round loss she was expected to win. “I don’t know. It’s very uncertain, I don’t know what I am going to do, whether I am going to take a break or not.”
So what’s going on when a professional athlete dedicates thousands of hours to practice, only to underperform, or “choke,” when it’s game time?
“When we’re under intense pressure to succeed, we often become hyper-conscious of our own performance, which my research shows ultimately leads to choking,” said Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and author of “Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.” “Whether you’re a pro golfer taking a putt you’ve practiced a million times, or pitching to a client after prepping for hours, you’re better off focusing on the outcome than every detail of what you are doing.”
You may not be a superstar tennis player watched by millions of people, but at some point in your career, you’ll probably face a high-stakes moment that feels “do-or-die.” Whether it’s a job interview or a client presentation, you’ll want to help your brain prepare against the possibility of freezing up under pressure.
Here’s some expert-backed research on how use the stress of a high-stakes moment to your advantage:
1. It may seem counterintuitive, but try thinking less about each step, and don’t keep practicing until the last moment.
Danielle Collins celebrates on the first day of the 2023 U.S. Open. "This is going to sound strange, but you have to play like you don’t care,” Collins said about preparing for the tournament.
To succeed on global stages like the U.S. Open, elite athletes know that paying too much attention to each point can be counterproductive.
As American professional tennis player Danielle Collins told The New York Times about playing the Open: “This is going to sound strange, but you have to play like you don’t care.”
“My research has found that when high-performing athletes analyze their performance, it inhibits them from doing their best, and when the pressure is on, even the most talented athletes can fall into overthinking about what they’re doing, causing them to choke,” Beilock said.
“The best athletes in the world have put in enough practice and repetition that when they perform, they aren’t conscious of the step-by-step details of their movements,” she said. Instead, they’re “running on autopilot, which frees up attention to focus on strategy, the desired outcome and other aspects of their performance.”
In one of Beilock’s studies, she and her fellow researchers found that expert golfers actually did worse when encouraged to focus on their step-by-step putting performance than when they were put under conditions designed to distract attention from their putting.
“You can’t downplay the importance of practice, but it needs to be balanced with an ability to let go of the step-by-step details in the moment,” Beilock said. “This applies whether you’re an Olympic athlete or a person giving a presentation at work.”
In other words, you definitely need to practice, but you also need to know when it’s time to tune out the noise. To do that, Beilock said, it helps to create calm right before the big moment.
“Practicing right up until the last minute or cramming will only create more anxiety and cognitive burden,” she said. “Instead, a consistent pre-performance routine before high-stakes events can help get you ready to perform at your best when it counts most.”
2. Be open about your fear of losing if it’s a big worry.
Identifying your biggest worry may help you figure out what can be your biggest motivator.
“One tennis player might be really worried about doing well at the U.S. Open because of the money on the line, [while] another tennis player might be really worried because of all the people watching,” said Vikram Chib, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University who studies how incentives motivate performance. “Understanding those differences on a person-to-person basis is really important, and could help you figure out, ‘Well, how do I design psychological interventions to help overcome these things?’”
Sometimes, knowing whether you have a winning mindset or more of a fear of losing can make all the difference. In one 2014 study, Chib and other researchers found that people with high loss aversion “choked” at playing a difficult video game when they were told they stood to win a big cash prize. Meanwhile, people with low loss aversion crumbled under the pressure of large potential cash losses.
In other words, if you’re very loss-averse, Chib said, you’ll actually do better when tasks are framed as though you’re playing to avoid losing. By contrast, if you’re less scared of losing, you’ll do better when you’re playing to win.
So if you know you’re afraid of losing, tell yourself you’re playing not to lose. “That reframing sort of gets their worry about losses out of the way up front,” Chib said. “And they actually tend to do better when presented with a task, which seems really counterintuitive.”
3. Take the long view, so one setback doesn’t throw you.
As tennis star Frances Tiafoe puts it: "Sometimes you gotta take two steps back to go forward.”
How you think about the past can help you visualize the future. When you reframe past losses as simply setbacks in the grand scheme of your career, it won’t send you into a tailspin when you don’t get that one job or score that one promotion.
Take it from U.S. tennis star Frances Tiafoe, who’s talked about how he reset after his “very depressing” straight-sets defeat in Wimbledon earlier this year.
“Not playing my best tennis that day at the end of the third round, I was super upset,” Tiafoe told “Good Morning America” last week. “But it’s the name of the game. It’s part of it. Sometimes you gotta take two steps back to go forward.”
To reframe your setbacks in a positive light, let go of what you cannot control, so you can move forward. Amanda Hennessey, founder of Boston Public Speaking, is a former actress who has coached people on the art of public address. She said one mistake happens when people try to control every outcome with thinking like, “If I rehearse that 1,000 times in front of the mirror, in front of my partner, BFF and dog, I’ll be good to go. And then I’ll definitely get the job.”
“When we put so much weight on the experience and think ‘I have to get this job!’ or ‘This presentation must be perfect,’ it becomes hard to breathe and think clearly,” Hennessey said. “If you say those sentences to yourself right now, notice how your body feels. Do you feel like you can breathe? Or adapt in the moment? Do you feel at ease?”
Her recommendation? Don’t think so much about memorizing exactly what you need to say. Instead, think about creating a powerful experience for the interviewer or audience.
“Putting our focus on us seems to make sense ― everyone is looking at us. Of course, it’s about us!” Hennessey said. “But what if instead, we focused on sharing our point of view and our research, rather than proving ourselves? Prove your point, but let go of a need to prove your worth.”
4. Tell yourself the doubt and stress you’re feeling is actually excitement.
You can tell yourself that pressure is too much to handle ― or you can train your brain to feel your stress as excitement, and to hear those boos as cheers.
Take it from Novak Djokovic, who talked about how he handled a crowd that was cheering for his opponent Roger Federer in 2019.
“At times, you just try to ignore it, which is quite hard. I like to ‘transmutate’ it in a way. So when the crowd is chanting ‘Roger,’ I hear ‘Novak,’” Djokovic told press after he successfully defended his Wimbledon men’s singles title against Federer. “It sounds silly, but it is like that. I try to convince myself that it’s like that.”
You may not be hearing the roar of a crowd, but you could be hearing internal voices of doubt before a big professional moment like a high-stakes client presentation.
“To prepare for the unexpected, practice saying ‘Oh good!’ or ‘Great!’ every time you’re facing an obstacle,” Hennessey said. ”This will help you get in the habit of rising to the challenge rather than shrinking or freezing up. Then, when it’s your big moment and you’re facing something you weren’t expecting, you’ll think much more clearly and problem-solve with more confidence, instead of being totally thrown off.”
And keep yourself flexible for the unexpected. If you’re stressed about a job interview, for example, practice your answers to interview questions in a variety of ways so you’re not stuck in only one way of responding, Hennessey recommended. “For presentations, always remember ― this experience is about helping your audience. It’s not about you.”
“Pressure is a privilege,” says tennis legend Billie Jean King.
And if you can’t help but think about the big stakes of what you’re doing, embrace the challenge of the moment and remember that it’s a sign of how far you’ve come. As tennis icon Billie Jean King puts it: “Pressure is a privilege.”
“If you have tremendous pressure, it’s because an opportunity comes along,” King told The Washington Post Magazine in 2019. “I remember thinking about this, actually, when I was at Centre Court at Wimbledon. And I said, ‘All right. You’ve been dreaming about this moment. Is it a lot of pressure? Yeah. But guess what? It’s a privilege to be standing here.’”