Ever wonder why some people thrive under pressure while others crumble? A lot it comes down to how we prepare mentally.

A study published in February 2016 in Nature examined why people tense up and stumble while performing complex tasks in front of observers. The researchers found that if the part of the brain that notices other people judging is triggered, another region that controls fine sensorimotor skills shuts down. This explains missed free throws, flunked driver’s tests, stumbling at job interviews, dropped chalk during presentations, etc.


During these high-pressure situations, it’s tempting to say to ourselves, “Don’t mess this up,” or “Don’t blow it.” This type of internal dialogue actually increases the chance of failure. Research shows that telling yourself not to do something raises the likelihood of making it happen. This phenomenon was demonstrated by Daniel Wegner’s research on “ironic mental process” theory. He asked participants to try not to think of a white bear and found that the harder they tried, the more they thought about a white bear. (Try it.)

Wegner’s work revealed that attempting not to think of a topic often backfires. Moreover, he found the effect even stronger when people are under stress. So saying “Don’t mess this up” is an unhelpful, and even detrimental, message to send our brains.

We also sometimes overthink a situation, especially as we lie awake the night before. Sian Beilock, one of the world’s leading experts on the brain science behind wilting under pressure and the author of Choke, calls this “paralysis by analysis.” Overthinking can affect our ability to perform fully, even with tasks that we normally consider simple.

So what’s the best approach to increase the odds of performing well under pressure? Build a narrative that features the result you desire: Without over-analyzing, visualize a realistic, positive outcome. Athletes have used this technique for years, and business leaders can gain a competitive edge by adapting the same skills. If it’s free throws you need to sink, close your eyes and visualize yourself going through the physical motions carefully and watching the ball fly toward the hoop and then swooshing through the net. Remind yourself that you’re a good shot. If it’s a public presentation, picture yourself calmly delivering your talk to an appreciative and interested audience.