Why Top Performers Fail Under Pressure

09/23/14 arun 1 Comments

You've seen it happen before-maybe you've even experienced the stomach-churning, brain-in-hyperdrive feeling yourself. Whether it's the pro missing those easy free throws on the basketball court or someone sweating through an important presentation in the conference room-even the best performers choke under pressure.

The expertise and skillful command of these bright talents are exactly what should be helping them thrive in such conditions. All that hard work that brought them to where they are now should help them kick it up a notch and spur amazing feats. Instead, it's these outstanding capabilities that set them up for failure in the clutch.

While star performers should be best equipped to handle pressure, the interesting paradox is that top performers might be the most prone to buckling.

The Mental Game of Performance Pressure

The main issue when it comes to buckling under pressure is what's going on inside your head.

The stress of wanting to do really well makes you more self-conscious, turning over your brain to critical thoughts driven by worry, fear, and anxiety. As your self-scrutiny goes into overdrive, focus becomes a force of destruction that interferes with your natural and practiced flow as you start paying too much attention to what you're doing

Those thoughts are in fact taking up precious brain space as they start filling up your working memory. Working memory plays a fundamental role in how we think and function. It's a complex kind of short-term memory system used to reason and calculate, that:

"...maintains, in an active state, a limited amount of information with immediate relevance to the task at hand while preventing distractions from the environment and irrelevant thoughts. If the ability of working memory to maintain task focus is disrupted, performance may suffer."

Your working memory, just like a computer's memory, is a limited resource. And when you start letting anxious, worried thoughts intrude in situations of performance pressure, you deplete major mental resources that could be better used anywhere else than over-thinking your every move.