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  • One of the most humiliating things

  • that you can say about someone is "they choked."

  • And boy, do I know that feeling.

  • Growing up, I was an avid athlete.

  • My main sport was soccer, and I was a goalkeeper,

  • which is both the best and the worst position on the field.

  • You see, when you're a goalie, you get this special uniform,

  • you get all the glory for a great shot saved,

  • but you also get the grief when you land a shot in the goal.

  • When you're a goalie,

  • all eyes are on you,

  • and with that comes the pressure.

  • I distinctly remember one game in high school.

  • I was playing for the California state team

  • which is part of the Olympic Development Program.

  • I was having a great game ...

  • until I realized that the national coach was standing right behind me.

  • That's when everything changed.

  • In a matter of seconds,

  • I went from playing at the top to the bottom of my ability.

  • Just knowing that I was being evaluated changed my performance

  • and forever how I thought about the mental aspect of how we perform.

  • All of a sudden the ball seemed to go in slow motion,

  • and I was fixated on my every move.

  • The next shot that came I bobbled,

  • but thankfully it didn't land in the goal.

  • The shot after that,

  • I wasn't so lucky:

  • I tipped it right into the net.

  • My team lost;

  • the national coach walked away.

  • I choked under the pressure of those evaluative eyes on me.

  • Just about everyone does it from time to time --

  • there are so many opportunities,

  • whether it's taking a test,

  • giving a talk,

  • pitching to a client

  • or that special form of torture I like to call the job interview.

  • (Laughter)

  • But the question is why.

  • Why do we sometimes fail to perform up to our potential under pressure?

  • It's especially bewildering in the case of athletes

  • who spend so much time physically honing their craft.

  • But what about their minds?

  • Not as much.

  • This is true off the playing field as well.

  • Whether we're taking a test of giving a talk,

  • it's easy to feel like we're ready --

  • at the top of our game --

  • and then perform at our worst when it matters most.

  • It turns out that rarely do we practice

  • under the types of conditions we're actually going to perform under,

  • and as a result,

  • when all eyes are on us,

  • we sometimes flub our performance.

  • Of course, the question is, why is this the case?

  • And my experience on the playing field --

  • and in other important facets of my life --

  • really pushed me into the field of cognitive science.

  • I wanted to know how we could reach our limitless potential.

  • I wanted to understand how we could use our knowledge

  • of the mind and the brain

  • to come up with psychological tools that would help us perform at our best.

  • So why does it happen?

  • Why do we sometimes fail to perform up to what we're capable of

  • when the pressure is on?

  • It may not be so surprising to hear that in stressful situations, we worry.

  • We worry about the situation,

  • the consequences,

  • what others will think of us.

  • But what is surprising is that we often get in our own way

  • precisely because our worries prompt us to concentrate too much.

  • That's right --

  • we pay too much attention to what we're doing.

  • When we're concerned about performing our best,

  • we often try and control aspects of what we're doing

  • that are best left on autopilot,

  • outside conscious awareness,

  • and as a result,

  • we mess up.

  • Think about a situation where you're shuffling down the stairs.

  • What would happen if I asked you

  • to think about what you're doing with your knee

  • while you're doing that?

  • There's a good chance you'd fall on your face.

  • We as humans only have the ability to pay attention to so much at once,

  • which is why, by the way,

  • it's not a good idea to drive and talk on the cell phone.

  • And under pressure,

  • when we're concerned about performing at our best,

  • we can try and control aspects of what we're doing

  • that should be left outside conscious control.

  • The end result is that we mess up.

  • My research team and I have studied this phenomenon of overattention,

  • and we call it paralysis by analysis.

  • In one study, we asked college soccer players to dribble a soccer ball

  • and to pay attention to an aspect of their performance

  • that they would not otherwise attend to.

  • We asked them to pay attention

  • to what side of the foot was contacting the ball.

  • We showed that performance was slower and more error-prone

  • when we drew their attention to the step-by-step details

  • of what they were doing.

  • When the pressure is on,

  • we're often concerned with performing at our best,

  • and as a result we try and control what we're doing

  • to force the best performance.

  • The end result is that we actually screw up.

  • In basketball,

  • the term "unconscious" is used to describe a shooter who can't miss.

  • And San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan has said,

  • "When you have to stop and think, that's when you mess up."

  • In dance, the great choreographer, George Balanchine,

  • used to urge his dancers,

  • "Don't think, just do."

  • When the pressure's on,

  • when we want to put our best foot forward,

  • somewhat ironically,

  • we often try and control what we're doing in a way that leads to worse performance.

  • So what do we do?

  • Knowing that we have this overactive attention,

  • how do we ensure that we perform at our best?

  • A lot of it comes down to the prefrontal cortex,

  • that front part of our brain that sits over our eyes

  • and usually helps us focus in positive ways.

  • It often gets hooked on the wrong things.

  • So how do we unhook it?

  • Something as simple as singing a song,

  • or paying attention to one's pinky toe,

  • as pro golfer Jack Nicklaus was rumored to do,

  • can help us take our mind off those pesky details.

  • It's also true that practicing under conditions

  • that we're going to perform under --

  • closing the gap between training and competition

  • can help us get used to that feeling of all eyes on us.

  • This is true off the playing field as well.

  • Whether it's getting ready for an exam

  • or preparing for a big talk --

  • one that might have a little pressure associated with it --

  • (Laughter)

  • getting used to the types of situations you're going to perform under

  • really matters.

  • When you're taking a test, close the book,

  • practice retrieving the answer from memory under timed situations,

  • and when you're giving a talk,

  • practice in front of others.

  • And if you can't find anyone who will listen,

  • practice in front of a video camera or even a mirror.

  • The ability to get used to what it will feel like can make the difference

  • in whether we choke or thrive.

  • We've also figured out some ways to get rid of those pesky worries

  • and self-doubts that tend to creep up in the stressful situations.

  • Researchers have shown that simply jotting down your thoughts and worries

  • before a stressful event

  • can help to download them from mind --

  • make them less likely to pop up in the moment.

  • It's kind of like when you wake up in the middle of the night

  • and you're really worried about what you have to do the next day,

  • you're trying to think about everything you have to accomplish,

  • and you write it down and then you can go back to sleep.

  • Journaling, or getting those thoughts down on paper,

  • makes it less likely they'll pop up and distract you in the moment.

  • The end result is that you can perform your best when it matters most.

  • So up until now,

  • I've talked about what happens when we put limits on ourselves

  • and some tips we can use to help perform up to our potential.

  • But it's important to remember

  • that it's not just our own individual being

  • that can put limits and that can perform poorly;

  • our environment has an effect on whether we choke or thrive.

  • Our parents, our teachers, our coaches, our bosses all influence

  • whether or not we can put our best foot forward when it matters most.

  • Take math as an example.

  • That's right, I said it:

  • math.

  • Lots of people profess to choke or are anxious about doing math,

  • whether it's taking a test or even calculating the tip on a dinner bill

  • as our smart friends look on.

  • And it's quite socially acceptable

  • to talk about choking or performing poorly in math.

  • You don't hear highly educated people walking around talking about the fact

  • or bragging about the fact that they're not good readers,

  • but you hear people all the time bragging about how they're not math people.

  • And unfortunately,

  • in the US, this tends to be more so among girls and women

  • than boys and men.

  • My research team and I have tried to understand

  • where this fear of math comes from,

  • and we've actually peered inside the brains

  • using functional magnetic resonance imaging,

  • of people who are worried about math.

  • We've shown that math phobia correlates with a concrete visceral sensation

  • such as pain,

  • of which we have every right to feel anxious.

  • In fact, when people who are worried about math

  • are just getting ready to take a math test --

  • they're not even taking it, they're just getting ready --

  • areas of the brain known the be involved in our neural pain response are active.

  • When we say math is painful,

  • there's some truth to it for some people.

  • But where does this math anxiety come from?

  • It turns out that math anxiety is contagious.

  • When adults are worried about math,

  • the children around them start worrying, too.

  • As young as first grade,

  • when kids are in classrooms

  • with teachers who are anxious about their own math ability,

  • these kids learn less across the school year.

  • And it turns out that this is more prevalent in girls than boys.

  • At this young age,

  • kids tend to mimic same-sex adults,

  • and at least in the US,

  • over 90 percent of our elementary school teachers are women.

  • Of course, it's not just what happens in the classroom.

  • Social media plays a big role here, too.

  • It wasn't so long ago

  • that you could purchase a Teen Talk Barbie

  • that when the cord was pulled,

  • it would say things like,

  • "Will we ever have enough clothes?"

  • and "Math class is tough."

  • And just a few years ago,

  • major retailers were marketing T-shirts at our young girls

  • that read things like, "I'm too pretty to do math,"

  • or, "I'm too pretty to do my homework so my brother does it for me."

  • And let's not forget about the parents.

  • Oh, the parents.

  • It turns out that when parents are worried about their own math ability

  • and they help their kids a lot with math homework,

  • their kids learn less math across the school year.

  • As one parent put it,

  • "I judge my first grader's math homework

  • by whether it's a one-glass assignment or a three-glass night."

  • (Laughter)

  • When adults are anxious about their own math ability,

  • it rubs off on their kids

  • and it affects whether they choke or thrive.

  • But just as we can put limits on others,

  • we can take them off.

  • My research team and I have shown

  • that when we help parents do fun math activities with their kids --

  • rather than, say, just doing bedtime stories or bedtime reading,

  • they do bedtime math,

  • which are fun story problems to do with your kids at night,

  • not only do children's attitudes