BOOK REVIEW: Choke by Sian Beilock

Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have ToChoke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To by Sian Beilock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

“Choke” in this book means to under-perform under high stakes. It doesn’t mean to be a poor performer, generally. This book is designed to help those who perform at a lower level when the pressure is on. It’s a condition that’s even been witnessed in Olympic caliber athletes–world champions who couldn’t get on the podium in the most important games of their careers. The book isn’t just about choking in sports; in fact, much of it is about bombing tests, and it also addresses under-performance in business environments.

“Choke” is organized into nine chapters. The first is called the “curse of expertise,” and it deals with just that—how experts are notoriously bad judges of how successful novices will be. This is because the causes of under-performance aren’t always straight forward. For example, some qualities that serve to make individuals strong contenders under low pressure conditions (e.g. a large working-memory) contribute to the cracking of the same individuals under high stakes. The second chapter explains how practice improves performance. Chapter three investigates why using our Prefrontal Cortex (i.e. our conscious mind) can do us in when the task calls for procedural memory that is unconscious to do its work.

Chapter four delves into the differences between the sexes in academic endeavors. Chapter five is about choking on tests in a scholastic environment, and it deals a lot with why minorities under-perform on standardized tests. Chapter Six presents some activities that have been shown to be successful in reducing choking including therapeutic writing, meditation, and changing one’s mode of thinking. There is a box at the end of the chapter that summarizes many of these cures.

Chapter seven discusses choking in sports. Choking in sports has some common ground with academic under-performance. However, it’s also different in that the object is often to quiet the conscious mind altogether. Some solutions for the yips in sports, such as mantras repeated in one’s mind to let the procedural memory take over, may not be as useful in an academic setting. Chapter 8 presents a range of techniques to prevent choking from practicing under more realistic conditions to getting on with it (i.e. not overthinking or slowing down) to distracting oneself to focusing on the goal (not the process.) The chapter also looks at the flip-side, why those who excel in physical performance often stink at coaching (i.e. they aren’t analytical about how it’s done.) This chapter also has a nice summary box of solutions. The final chapter looks at under-performance in a business setting, which again shares some things in common with choking in other domains, but also presents its own problems.

I found this book to be useful and thought-provoking. The advice is sound.

The discussion of bombing at tests and in the academic setting is largely applicable only to females or minorities as it focuses heavily on the issue of why these groups are disproportionately affected by academic under-performance. With respect to sports and business, the only condition necessary to benefit from the advice is a proclivity to choke or a desire to know how to help oneself or others avoid the fate. So depending upon what domain one is considering and one’s demographic, there may be other books that are either more or less relevant to one’s personal issue.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in the science of human performance.

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