that limits different parts of the brain from communicating
with one another. Commonly called paralysis by analysis, it’s
what causes Phil Mickelson to yank an important short putt,
an attorney in a courtroom to flub a response to an opposing
counsel’s sharp point, or even, in the extreme, a Parkinson’s patient’s inability to control what used to be routine movements.
While there can be a genetic component—connected to
the brain’s production of the neurotransmitter dopamine—to
choking under pressure, both scientific and anecdotal research
agrees that the best way to prepare for, say, that stressful first
performance at Carnegie Hall is to follow the traditional advice:
Practice, practice, practice.
The Best Teacher
“Practice can actually change the physical wiring of the brain
to support exceptional performances,” reports Beilock in Choke.
Even practicing under mild levels of stress, the research shows,
can help prepare the brain to react better under more serious
challenges. When soldiers or police officers are asked what they
were thinking when they stared down death in the line of duty,
the response is typically the same: “I didn’t have time to think. I
just did what I was trained to do.” To a lesser degree, this is why
coaches make players shoot free throws or kick field goals at the
end of practice and why trial attorneys rehearse their arguments
in moot court sessions.
The closer you are to actual conditions, the better—and
there’s no substitute for actual experience. In lab tests of professional and recreational soccer players at Katholieke Universiteit
Leuven in Belgium, sports psychologist Werner Helsen found no
meaningful difference in the players’ raw skills in areas such as
vision (tracking flashing lights and quickly moving objects) or
overall motor abilities. But when those skills were put into a soccer context in a virtual reality simulator that forced the players
to make decisions about whether to pass, shoot, or escape, the
professional players demonstrated far quicker visual recognition when tracking open teammates or closing defenders than
when simply tracking lights. Because years and years of experience had prepared them to make the right decisions, they no
longer needed conscious working memory but drew instead on
instinctive procedural memory. It’s the same thing that keeps
drivers out of countless collisions every year. The subconscious
recognition of one’s environment short-cuts the conscious decision-making process to begin collision avoidance measures
before the working memory even has a chance to take over.
In a similar experiment from the 1960s, when Dutch psy-
chologist and chess master Adrianus Dingeman de Groot
tested master and weaker players for their abilities to look at
a chessboard with randomly placed pieces and then re-create
the pieces from memory on an empty board (like a scene out
of the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer”), both sets of play-
ers struggled equally. When the same test was conducted with
the pieces placed as they might be in the middle of a game,
the masters reconstructed it almost perfectly—despite only a
few seconds to look at the original board. Although there was
little difference in raw memory between the two groups, the
more experienced chess players drew on experience to recog-
nize and remember certain patterns and attack sequences from
their procedural memories.
Clarity Under Scrutiny
For high-profile trial lawyer David Boies, who defeated Bill
Gates’ legal team in antitrust court and, in another case, successfully defended former AIG Chairman Hank Greenberg,
preparation for oral arguments means building a plan and
sticking to it with a confidence that can be established only
after personally reviewing every piece of evidence and anticipating the counterarguments that will stem from that
“When I was in school, I’d be cramming, and people would
say, ‘If you don’t know it now, you’ll never know it.’ I always
thought that was really dumb,” Boies explains in Paul Sullivan’s
2010 book Clutch: Why Some People Excel Under Pressure and
Once the plan is formed and the trial starts, however, that
switch is turned off. Boies credits his success for staying focused on the strategy—not flinching when the opposing bench
scores a point and not flattering himself over his own points. As
hitting coaches preach, the time to fix mechanics is in practice.
Once a hitter steps into the batter’s box, he or she must trust instinct because actively thinking about the execution of a swing
is the best way to spoil it. Boies believes that as long as his line
of reasoning is still true—and, just as important, still able to
resonate with the jury—the facts will become evident through
a presentation that is logical, clear, and thorough.
“What you’re really focused on is the next step, the next witness, the next argument,” Boies says.
It’s the same principle that has been drilled into Academy
spokespersons during media training sessions, and it’s just as
applicable to a legislator on the campaign trail, or an actuary
speaking in a congressional hearing or a meeting with the trustees of a pension plan. Clear and consistent delivery is critical.
For Boies, that means treating the jury as guests in his living
room—an attitude that helps him connect with his audience
and, at the same time, keeps him at ease.
The same commitment to discipline can benefit a company
on the profitable end of the balance sheet when rough waters
shake the integrity of its enterprise. This is an argument that
would get little dispute from actuaries. While some financial
institutions were depending on the inflated values in the unregulated derivatives market, which eventually catalyzed the
collapse of the banking system, state insurance regulations
requiring disciplined retention of capital reserves served to
maintain the dependability of insurance companies through
those tumultuous times.
But as every company should have known, disciplined long-term risk management strategies need to be second nature. One
way to insulate corporate decisions from the debilitating effects
of pressure on employees is by locking in the correct answers