What causes people to 'choke' under pressure?

Exhausted and frustrated male runner lying on a red running track covering his face with his hands.
Sometimes, the stress of big sporting events can hinder even the best athletes' performances. Why? (Image credit: Paul Bradbury via Getty Images)

In high-stakes situations, such as during a job interview, an exam or a sporting event, people may find that they "choke" under pressure, meaning they perform worse than expected. However, if that sense of pressure were removed, these people would be able to perform to their fullest capability, said Dr. Jeri Tikare, a clinical psychologist at Kooth, a digital mental wellbeing and counseling platform.

But what causes this phenomenon? And can it be avoided? Here's what research says.

How can stress affect performance?

Underperforming when it matters most may be a well-known phenomenon, but only recently have studies shed light on the potential mechanisms behind it. 

Choking under pressure can be linked to the fight or flight response, which is the body's way of protecting itself from situations deemed as potentially threatening, Tikare told Live Science. 

"This mechanism has ensured our survival to date," he said. However, sometimes our brains struggle to decipher the difference between what is dangerous and detrimental to our survival and what isn't. This means the physiological reactions people experience when there is danger are sometimes the same ones that arise when they're faced with less lethal challenges, such as speaking in public or engaging in sporting activities, Tikare said. 

When the body enters fight or flight mode, it rapidly increases the production of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. This in turn leads to an elevated heart rate and raised blood pressure. According to a 2023 study published in the journal Psychological Science, these cardiovascular factors may be a predictor of poor performance in sports competitions. Researchers measured the real-time heart rates of 122 athletes during the archery competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and found that higher heart rates when aiming were significantly associated with lower performance scores.

Archers with lowers scores were found to have higher heart rates during competition. (Image credit: Justin Setterfield / Staff via Getty Images)

Mental stress may lead to challenges with thinking clearly or concentrating as one's attention is centered on the perceived threat, Tikare said.

"When people experience a 'brain freeze' or 'choking,' their cognitive capacity or access to the part of the brain that helps them perform a task is limited as it is focused on the part of the brain that responds to danger," he said. This idea is supported by neuroimaging studies, which suggest that the activity of brain regions implicated in motivation and attention changes under the influence of stress, according to a 2015 review published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

High pressure may distract a person's attention away from the task and onto their worries about the consequences of failure, the review states. In addition, when there are high incentives and social pressure to succeed — for example, during big sporting events — individuals may be more focused on their public image than the task at hand, leading to overstimulation of the brain and poorer performance, the authors wrote. 

For this reason, the presence of others may be a key factor in choking under pressure, according to a 2007 review published in the Journal of Sports Sciences. Although supportive audiences can inspire performers to excel, the presence of others may also lead performers towards unhelpful self-monitoring and overcautiousness when the stakes are highest, the review authors wrote. This increased self-focus can effectively disrupt their ability to execute complex skills without too much conscious thought, as they have trained to do.

Some individuals may be more prone to choking under pressure than others, said Sam Jahara, a psychotherapist at Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy in the U.K. 

This propensity to underperform under stress can be "linked to having experienced more emotional, psychological or physical threat and danger in childhood as the brain is still developing," she told Live Science in an email. "There are also certain triggers for choking under pressure, such as a major past event or failure which has led to loss of confidence. It could also be that a person is experiencing a lot of stress in their present life and therefore the resources for good performance just are not there."

Can people avoid choking under pressure?

Performing under stress is a skill that can be improved with deliberate practice, Chris Hartley, a sport and performance psychologist working with Insure4Sport and a lecturer in sport psychology at the University of Stirling in Scotland, told Live Science in an email. People whose jobs require them to perform under extreme pressure — such as top-level athletes, medical practitioners and armed forces personnel — can get better at doing so by employing certain practices and strategies, he said. 

For example, they can analyze their past performances — good and bad — to identify the feelings, circumstances and outcomes tied to each, he said. People can thus identify which of their skills falter the most in stressful situations and dedicate more training time to those. In analyzing past performances, people can also pinpoint practices that help to settle their nerves and set them up for success, he said.

In the event that they find themselves panicked during a performance, they can also simplify the task down to a "landing strip protocol." 

"In high-pressure situations, our brains can get 'tunnel vision' and focus on irrelevant things," Hartley said. "In these situations, we can take a lesson from the aviation industry, where landing strips guide planes to safety in the dark of night. Similarly, you can create a 'landing strip' protocol of simple steps that you can follow at any point to help orient you back onto the task at hand." 

Another strategy is to develop visualization techniques, Tikare said. By visualizing every part of their performance beforehand, people can help minimize their chances of "choking" when they actually perform the task at hand, he said.

Anna Gora
Health Writer

Anna Gora is a health writer at Live Science, having previously worked across Coach, Fit&Well, T3, TechRadar and Tom's Guide. She is a certified personal trainer, nutritionist and health coach with nearly 10 years of professional experience. Anna holds a Bachelor's degree in Nutrition from the Warsaw University of Life Sciences, a Master’s degree in Nutrition, Physical Activity & Public Health from the University of Bristol, as well as various health coaching certificates. She is passionate about empowering people to live a healthy lifestyle and promoting the benefits of a plant-based diet.