Be Clutch, Don’t Choke: How to Thrive in High Pressure Situations (Part I)

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 28, 2011 · 23 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

The score is tied up. Only a second is left on the clock. A state championship is on the line. You step up to the foul line, dribble the ball a few times, take a deep breath, and then–swish–sink the foul shot that wins the game. That’s clutch.

Your co-worker has been preparing a pitch presentation for a potentially huge client for months. On the day of the presentation, he gets food poisoning and can’t do it. Your boss asks you to step in and give the presentation instead. You only have a few hours to immerse yourself in the materials. But come presentation time, you knock the socks off the client and get the deal. That’s clutch too.


One thing that separates great men from the mediocre is their ability to thrive in high-pressure situations. Instead of cracking under the stress, they become stronger. By stepping up and performing when when the chips are down, these men engender the confidence and trust of others, achieve and accomplish great feats, and build their legacy.

While we may never lead troops through a decisive battle or kick a game winning field goal, our ability to thrive under pressure is essential to our success as men. It’s usually those clutch moments when everything is on the line, that make or break a man’s progress. Will he rise to the next level or languish in obscurity?

When you’re in school, it doesn’t matter how well you do on your homework; if you can’t perform come exam time, you’re sunk. When a promotion evaluation comes your way, what do you think your boss will remember the most? All the times you’ve been reliable when the pressure was off, or the moments you crumbled when it really mattered?

Many people think that being clutch in high-pressure situations is some sort of innate talent that some people have and others don’t. Or that when someone pulls off an unlikely save, it simply came down to luck. The reality is that with a little work and discipline, anybody can become clutch.

The tactics you use to prevent choking under pressure vary depending on the mission you’re trying to accomplish and the particular mental faculties the task requires. The majority of situations can be broken into two categories: ones that primarily call upon your working memory, and those that primarily call upon your procedural memory. In this two-part series, we’ll explore both of these situations, the specific tactics needed to be clutch in each, as well as strategies for dealing with both kinds of challenges.

Today we’ll begin by discussing how to be clutch when faced with a task that calls upon your working memory.

What Is Working Memory?

Whenever we perform tasks that require reasoning, comprehension, and learning, we use our working memory. Our working memory allows us to hold relevant information in our brain while we do something else at the same time. Think of it as your flexible mental scratch pad.

Let’s say you’re trying to turn in a memo at the last minute. You did your research and found some great information you’d like to include in a section that drives home the main point. However, you’re not quite ready to write about that yet, so you hold that section in your mind while you continue writing. That’s an example of your working memory in action.

Your working memory can really be put to the test in high-pressure situations. You might be trying to solve one client’s last minute problem, while remembering the things you’re going to say in a meeting with another client that afternoon. You might be juggling a bunch of different facts and arguments in your mind as you prepare a legal brief that’s due the next day. Or you might be chatting with a potential business partner as you try to remember his name. And of course pretty much any test or exam calls upon your working memory in a big way.

Why We Choke Doing Tasks That Call Upon Our Working Memory

There are things that you can do to strengthen your working memory, but at any given time, it is a limited resource. When we start to worry, our negative internal monologue uses up our supply of working memory. Instead of using the fuel of our working memory to help us accomplish the task, it’s burned away with anxious hand-wringing.

How to Be Clutch in High Pressure Situations That Utilize Your Working Memory

If worry is the kryptonite to our working memory-clutchness, then the key to thriving in high pressure situations that require this ability is to chill the heck out. Here’s how to do it.

Slow down and take a step back. In high pressure situations, our natural reaction is to freak out and work as fast as we can. However, that’s just a recipe for choking big time. Studies show that when dealing with problems that require working memory, slowing down and taking your time leads to clutch performances. Slowing down and taking a step back from a problem will help prevent your working memory from being taxed by stress and worry.

Back in the 1980s, psychologist Micki Chi did an experiment to see what caused individuals to succeed or fail with difficult problem-solving in high pressure situations. She gave a set of basic physics problems to a group of physics professors, physics Ph.D. students, and undergrad students. The undergrad students had only completed one semester of physics.

Of course the professors and Ph.D students did better than the undergrads, but what was somewhat unexpected was the fact that the professors and Ph.D students didn’t necessarily finish the problems faster than the undergrads. Chi observed that the professors and Ph.D. students took longer to get started solving the problem than the undergrads did. Before putting pencil to paper, the profs and Ph.Ds paused to think about the problem and the underlying principles. Once they had a grasp of the problem, the professors and Ph.D. students were able to solve the problem quickly and correctly.

The undergrad students, on the other hand, jumped right into the problem without mulling it over. This would often cause them to get distracted and stressed with irrelevant details which would result in an incorrect answer.

Lesson learned: If you’re taking a big test, instead of frantically rushing right into solving the problem or writing the essay, spend some time thinking it over and making an outline. If you’re faced with an unforeseen problem at work, take a 5 minute walk outside so you can mull the situation over in a less stressful environment.

Meditate. Studies show that individuals who practice meditation can clear distracting thoughts (like worry) from their mind more quickly than individuals who don’t meditate. That sort of ability comes in handy in high pressure situations when you want to clear your working memory of anxiety, so you can stay focused on the task at hand.

So prepare for moments when you need to be clutch by spending 20 minutes a day meditating. You don’t have to do anything elaborate. Sit in a quiet place and focus on your breath going in your nose and out your mouth. Whenever a distracting thought pops up, don’t get flustered. Just name the thought, let it go, and focus back on your breath. If you’re like me, you’ll find that when you first start meditating, you get easily distracted by your thoughts. Don’t get discouraged; with time your mind will quiet down, and your ability to dismiss unwanted thoughts will improve.

Take a nap. One of the myriad of benefits that naps offer is a recharge of your working memory. If you have the time, take a 20 minute power nap and then get back to tackling the problem. You’ll likely get more done in the 40 minutes afterwards, then you would trying to power through 60 minutes of ineffective slogging.

Write down your worries. Writing down what’s stressing you out about a problem can help free up your working memory for the task at hand. When you’re starting to feel like you’re buckling under pressure, pull out your journal or pocket notebook and write down every worry you have until your mind is cleared.

In fact, write down everything. Remember, your working memory is a limited resource. To ensure that you think clearly and calmly and that you don’t forget anything when solving a problem, write down everything that comes to your mind. Don’t trust that your working memory will remember everything. Offload it by working problems out on paper.

Read Part II: How to be clutch in situations that involve your procedural memory, as well as tactics to thrive in high pressure situations that call upon either type of memory.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 andyinsdca June 28, 2011 at 11:53 pm

I’ve found that my journal has been indispensable the past month. I wrote extensively in in it about a very heavy situation I was going through. Now that it is over, I re-read the journal I kept and the answer was always there, in the writing. I was absolutely blinded by being in the mess, but the reflection my journal gave me has been very important in me getting past it. I wish I’d been smart enough to read what I’d written 2 weeks ago.

2 Jim June 29, 2011 at 1:09 am

The beginning reminded me of this quote from a Cracked article:

“When pushed too far, some men shut down completely, cry or rail against the unjust God that inflicted such dire times upon them. And some men, when they reach their breaking points as human beings, opt instead to transcend the limitations of the human form, channel hellfire through their palms and bring the entire world crashing down around them.”

Though with less crashing…

3 Bill June 29, 2011 at 3:09 am

I’m a strong believer of using a notebook and writing down all your worries, plans, tasks, and stuff that wonders around in my mind. it keeps me focus on what’s important for the day.

4 William M June 29, 2011 at 3:36 am

When working on a engineering problem for my Formula SAE team I like to use “sticky note engineering”. Write down your equations, ideas and sketches on sticky notes and set them all out infront of you. Being able to physically move your work around and easily add/remove new notes is a powerful visual tool.

5 Mato Tope June 29, 2011 at 4:11 am

The point about writing ideas down is paramount.
For the past five years I have been writing a novel – a philosophical thriller – and during that time have filled four notebooks with ideas. Ideas such as those that come whilst day-dreaming or just about to fall asleep. Ideas that come from mulling over a plot-line whilst running outdoors. Snippets of interesting dialogue heard on the radio, t.v. or real life. Ideas from philosophers and the thoughts of great historical figures. And, it must be said, the inspiring ideas and thoughts gleaned from the articles on The Art Of Manliness.
These notebooks are fountains of wisdom and when I re-read them I’m amazed just how much I would have lost had I not adopted the simple discipline of writing them down.
Great article, Brett and Kate.
Also, good look with tackling that grest malaise of our time; cynicism

6 Greg June 29, 2011 at 9:23 am

Preparation and practice are the biggest for me.
Putting off the little “maintenance” tasks always come back to bite in an emergency.
Being well versed in how things are supposed to go (when everything is working right) allows attention to be focused on what is going wrong (reduces the learning curve).

7 Dan June 29, 2011 at 10:26 am

In Bounce by Matthew Syed, one of the final chapters was all about how and why world class performers choke. Since they have practiced their craft for thousands of hours, it has become so automatic that instead of thinking about how to move their arms to make a shot or what convincing body language to use, they can focus on strategy and tactics. It is when they overthink it and actively worry about adjusting their routines at the last minute, putting them back into a beginner’s mindset, that they trip up. The author cites well known athletes and his own choke job as a table tennis Olympian.
Looking forward to part II!

8 Tyler S. June 29, 2011 at 10:37 am

Journal and have a note pad next to the bed. Write down your thoughts before bed and if you have an idea in the middle of the night – that way it is available and you won’t break out in a sweat when you have to recall it later and cannot perform such a task. Being a teacher, things are always thrown our way at the last minute so thinking on your toes is a must, especially in an urban setting. I usually take a step back as stated and reflect on what needs to be done to get myself and others back on track.

9 All American Home Run Derby June 29, 2011 at 1:09 pm

I have found that practice is the key. If you practice enough, you will gain confidence. Also, not thinking/worrying about it is key. I like to take my mind off the subject completely by going for a run, watching a movie, or taking a nap. This allows me to loosen up and free ym mind. And then when I’m in the situation, I try to have total focus on the present and not worry about the future. I used to choke all the time and now I feel like I am good under pressure.

10 Chris June 29, 2011 at 1:34 pm

I have some pretty hardcore medical exams coming up in the next week and I am feeling pretty much at breaking point!

Lucky you have these sorts of articles… still I don’t know if it relieves the pressure or makes me feel more pressure to try and handle it well.. any chance the other half will come out before friday ;)

11 Daniel Comp June 29, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Nice work again, Brett and Kate. You seem to have a great list of topics to pursue.

For those that are interested in another side of the ‘CHOKE’ vs. ‘PANIC’ reactions to stress, Malcome Gladwell wrote a great article in the New Yorker, which is reprinted in his latest book, “What The Dog Saw”. It gives a number of examples from John Kennedy Jr. crashing his plane, to divers, tennis pros, etc.

My practice? Become a subject matter expert – more than 10,000 hours of practice – all the while being self-aware to learn from mistakes, and to make small enough mistakes you can learn from. (no fatalities)

My kids have practiced this. Carissa is with Oakley after a pro snowboarding career, my son David is now driving fire engines and resciing people after pro kite-boarding with Naish. Take risks – the ones you can learn from!

12 Chuck June 29, 2011 at 2:49 pm

When in trouble when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout;
If the others follow you chances are they’re clueless too.

- One of my all time favorites on stressful situations.

13 Chris June 29, 2011 at 4:04 pm

@ Chuck

I’d like to do this but it may cause some sort of library-based riot of edgy/exam crazed medical students…

14 Chuck June 29, 2011 at 4:11 pm


You of all people should know that there is a pill for that. I thought I saw an ad for a drug specifically for anxiety caused by: Professional examinations, student loans and insurance company reimbursement rates.

Thank god for big pharma and American advertising!

15 Jason June 29, 2011 at 5:34 pm

I’m known for my crisis management here at work because I read two different quotes and took them to heart.

It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.
Franklin D. Roosevelt

A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.
George S. Patton

16 Jack Foley June 30, 2011 at 7:15 pm

Decision are highly rigged by our emotions. It is through our emotions (when they have not hijacked the rational parts of our brain) that we can actually make decisions in high pressure situations. I read a book by Jonah Lehrer called “How we Decide”. I would recommend you read it if you are interested in learning more about how these decisions are made. Visit my blog! I have also written a few opinions about these ideas.

17 Lee June 30, 2011 at 11:47 pm

This is a good article, but feel like it was just a primer in a long series. I look forward to the rest of the series.

The working memory suggestion is interesting. When writing an essay exam, we were taught to first read the problem, read the question, reread the problem, pause and think about it, write an outline, and then write the problem. Pretty similar to the take a step back suggestion. Also very similar to what the physics professors did. There must be something to the take a deep breath saying.

18 Gil July 1, 2011 at 1:02 am
19 Desertrat July 1, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I gave up stress for Lent, decades ago. After wondering about ICBMs onto me in Paris in 1957 during the Hungarian crisis, and getting my old race car all backwards at 150 in 1971, I decided that anything else was seriously low-stress. Once you survive something with serious potential for harm, everything else is pretty easy.

20 Daniel July 4, 2011 at 10:58 am

I’ve heard this quote attributed to several people, but the content quite true:

“You will not rise to the occasion, you will default to your level of training”

21 Jon B. July 5, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Down with ineffective slogging!

22 Steven C July 8, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Interesting! I got my LSAT’s coming up in October and I am paranoid of reaching my breaking point from studynig right before the test.

Your suggestions I will most definitely consider. Meditating in particular. I tried it once but my mind was frantic and racing as usual. I think I’ll have to try out the notebook as well, seeing the above posts noting its benefits.

Thanks again Brett and Kate!

23 Max July 9, 2011 at 12:21 am

Indeed, a good article, cannot wait for part two.

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