Mackay: How to overcome the jitters and not freeze up

  • Article by: HARVEY MACKAY
  • July 27, 2014 - 2:00 PM

I recently came across a graduation speech by the valedictorian of a law school. He began his remarks by acknowledging that he had difficulty deciding what “wisdom” to impart to his fellow graduates. He said he had consulted several quotation books and speaker’s guides, but had come away uninspired. He reviewed all the cases of law the class had studied and had found nothing that he felt was appropriate on such an important occasion.

At a loss for any inspiring thoughts, he sat down at his kitchen table to eat biscuits. And right in front of him on the opened roll of refrigerated biscuit dough, he spotted the belief that he knew he and his fellow graduates had in common and that he felt was worthy of the occasion. The package, he said, had this message: “Keep cool. But do not freeze.” And with that he thanked all assembled and returned to his seat amid rousing applause.

Freezing up — also referred to as choking — in important situations happens to all of us. We regularly hear about golf superstars who blow a tap-in putt or $16 million-a-year basketball players missing a crucial shot.

Many times choking is triggered by thinking too much. Now neuroscience explains why. We used to assume that if the incentive is increased, the will to perform will automatically increase as well. Not so, according to a study that appeared in the journal Neuron.

A simple arcade game was used for the test. At first, performance steadily improved as incentives increased. The extra money proved motivating. But this effect lasted for only a little while. Once the rewards passed a certain threshold, scientists observed a surprising decrease in success. The extra cash hurt performance, and the subjects began to choke.

The study stated that: “The subjects were victims of loss aversion. That’s the well-documented psychological phenomenon that losses make us feel bad more than gains make us feel good. Instead of being excited by their future riches, the subjects were fretting over their possible failure. … They care too much. They really want to win, and so they get unraveled by the pressure of the moment. The simple pleasures of the game have vanished. … The fear of losing is what remains.”

That attitude is completely counterproductive. Fear of failure is paralyzing. It prevents you from taking the risks necessary to succeed spectacularly.

If you choke when you’re in the spotlight or you start shaking, blushing or having shortness of breath when you’re on stage, check out the story by Karen Haywood Queen in Better Homes and Gardens about pianist Miriam Elfstron. She suffered the jitters so bad that she had to wear mittens all day the days of her performances because her hands shook and became cold. Eventually, her piano instructor taught her how to control her anxiety:

• Think positively. Practice making positive statements about what you are doing and avoid using negative words or self-talk. For instance, say, “I am confident,” not, “I don’t feel nervous.”

• Practice performing through the inevitable slips. It’s a performance. If you mess up, the world won’t come to an end.

• Practice in front of smaller groups first. Don’t perform for the first time for a crowd of 500. It’s too much pressure.

• Reduce muscle tension. If your body is relaxed, there’s a good chance your mind will be relaxed as well.

• Adopt a ritual. Carry a lucky charm. Wear your lucky shoes. Whatever works for you is OK.

• Don’t be a perfectionist. Don’t visualize a perfect performance, because then you will feel like you’ve failed if you make even a small mistake.

Mackay’s Moral: Don’t let choking suck the life out of your career.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@

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