in: Behavior, Character, Featured

• Last updated: June 30, 2023

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

Vintage basketball game and man shooting free throw.

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.

Be sure to check out our podcast with Don Greene about performing under pressure: 

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