How educators can help students avoid choking under the stress of academic pressure.

Academic competitions in many ways are just like sports, and we see it all the time in sports. Players have a chance to make the big play, one they’ve made a thousand times before and typically make without thinking twice. They’ve practiced making that very play and even focused on it during practice leading up to the game. There is no reason why they should fail to make the play, but when the time comes, they fall flat on their faces. They miss the three-foot putt on the 18th hole at the Masters. They shank a 26-yard field goal during the NFL Playoffs. They miss a potential game-winning layup as time expires. When these kinds of scenarios play out, the player is accused of choking under pressure. We think the moment became too big and they couldn’t accomplish what is typically second nature to them. But what really happens in these situations? And more importantly, can we help to minimize the chances of choking under pressure? In short, the science says yes.

“Too much brain interference with movement can make you choke,” says Sian Beilock, academic dean and former professor of psychology at Columbia University, in her book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.  While the concept of choking under pressure is something commonly associated with the sports world, it is not specific to just athletics. People engaging in any kind of stressful activity can become anxious about performing well, especially in competitive situations. In fact, many times we become so anxious that the failure we dread becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We end up fearing failure so much that we do just that.

Performance anxiety is everywhere. As adults we face it when giving business presentations, in social settings, and countless other situations where we may feel that we’re not up to the challenge. It’s common for students to feel anxious about school, taking tests, presenting projects, or performing in academic competitions. It’s not unusual for those involved in academic competitions to succumb to performance anxiety just like athletes. The question is, how can we minimize the negative effects from performance anxiety? Why does our anxiety happen in the first place? And how do we turn it into performance-boosting energy instead?

According to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, co-authors of the book “Top Dog: the science of winning and losing," there are a variety of factors that contribute to the concept of choking that they share with the NewYorkTimes, including:

  • How we were raised
  • Our skills and experience
  • The hormones that we marinated in as fetuses
  • Genetics (According to scientists, one particular gene, referred to as the COMT gene, could to a large degree explain why one child is more prone to be a worrier, while another may be unflappable).

While we cannot control what hormones surrounded a child prior to birth and science has yet to figure out how to alter our genetic code, educators and coaches can affect the skills and experience of the students as they approach competitive situations.

Some research indicates that simply having a high level of familiarity with a subject helps. The more familiar a student is with a subject matter, the less likely he or she will be to freeze up when it comes time to compete. This seems pretty basic, and although just being an expert or having a high familiarity of the subject will help you perform well, it alone is not enough to overcome high performance anxiety. Even the best experts choke sometimes. The key is in how much the participant believes that they are an expert. It sounds a little hokey, but simple exercises in which students have written statements like “I am an expert” before an exam, have marked significant increases in their performance.

Dr. Jeremy Jamieson, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Rochester, has conducted a series of experiments that demonstrate how we process and label stress internally affects performance on academic testing. The first experiment conducted by Dr. Jamieson was at Harvard University with undergraduates who were studying for the Graduate Record Examination. Prior to one test, the students read a short statement explaining that the study’s purpose was to examine the effects of stress on their performance. Some of the students, were then also given a statement declaring that other recent research suggested “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.”

The simple act of reading this statement significantly improved students’ performance. It changed the way they approached their stress. The students who read this second statement scored 50 points higher than the control group. Even though this was significant, it was still just a lab test. So Dr. Jamieson went on a few months later to evaluate the same students G.R.E scores. The group taught to see anxiety as beneficial in the lab experiment scored 65 points higher than the controls. These and other experiments indicate that simple processes to change how your students view the stress of a competitive situation can radically change how that stress affects them during the performance.

There are also other ways to help students believe that they are experts and view their stress as beneficial rather than detrimental. For one, in competitive situations, students should compete at levels of competition where they are on par with their peers. Participating in a level of competition appropriate for the student’s level of expertise can help them feel sufficiently in control of their own fate.

Between 2007 and 2012, economists Scott Carrell, Bruce Sacerdote, and James West studied cadets at the United States Air Force Academy and noticed a pattern: cadets with lower grades improved academically if they spent time with friends who were doing well school. So, on the economists’ recommendation, the Academy deliberately engineered the composition of their incoming cadet squadrons, grouping cadets with lower GPAs and SAT scores with cadets who’d achieved high grades and scores.

The intervention was a disaster. The low-performing cadets actually did worse than before! Why? The engineered connection between low and high performing students drew attention to the fact that low-performing students were far from being able to compete with their high-flying peers. The low-performers gave up trying. The take away from this study, as noted by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in their book Top Dog: the science of winning and losing, “Contests only work when it’s an even match up, or a close race, such that the extra effort becomes the decider between winning and losing. People need at least a fighting chance. When leaders are not challenged, they coast a little. Those too far behind stop trying as hard, lacking any sense that winning is feasible.”

Takeaways for Today’s Educator-Coaches

Changing how a student views stress takes time and practice, but based on this scientific literature review there are at least two key ways that educators or academic coaches can help their students turn performance anxiety into a performance booster.

First: implementing some simple exercises prior to a stressful event to help students remind themselves of their own expertise, or that the stress itself can be a performance driver will help turn negative performance anxiety into positive motivational energy. Activities can be simply writing, “I am an expert,” or reminding them of stereotype biases in areas they are competing in (for example, that there is a stereotype that women do not do as well as men in math, and that this is not true). These simple exercises help students believe that they are experts and turn their anxiety into performance boosting energy.

Second: taking part in additional competitions can come in handy. However, the competitive situations any coach or educator engineers for their students should place them in competitions with students on similar academic levels. This will help them maintain a drive and motivation to perform better, rather than seeing the challenge as unattainable. Additionally, practicing and becoming familiar with the structure of competitive situations can help students become “experts” at the competition itself. The more opportunity they have to put their expertise into practice, the better. But it must be the right level of competition where they can feel like an expert.

 

Conclusions

So does having students write about their worries, compete in low level competitions, or state how they are experts before the match guarantee that they will perform the best and score top marks on the next exam? Of course not. Choking is not that cut and dry. And these exercises are not a replacement for actually knowing your facts.

Prior to missing a 26-yard field goal in the 2015 NFL Playoffs against the Seattle Seahawks, then-Minnesota Vikings kicker Blair Walsh had made 30 of 31 attempts from 20-29 yards long. As a rookie (in 2012) he made ten of ten attempts from 50+ yards. So, the miss from 26-yards that cost the Vikings the win had nothing to do with his ability. No matter how much of an expert you are, we can never guarantee you will not choke under pressure.

What we can do is to help minimize the chances of choking, so that over time a student’s performance as a whole will out shine any instances of the shanked academic shot. Did any of the game-winning shots Michael Jordan missed change how he is viewed? Absolutely not! Why? Because he didn’t let the fear of failing again keep him from trying, and he went on to become the greatest basketball player the world has ever seen. Let your students compete at the right levels for them, help them feel like experts, and they will thrive in their futures.

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