Choke Point: How to make critical decisions when under pressure

With more attention than ever before on sports and athletic performance, I find myself intrigued by why some athletes are able to consistently perform extraordinarily well under high-pressure while others don’t.  Is it just because they’re more skilled and better trained?  Are they trying harder? Are they taking more (or fewer) risks? Or maybe they just have an innate, God-given gift to make the right decisions at critical moments. If we could better understand this phenomenon, wouldn’t it be amazing if we used the findings to unleash our own human potential — not just in sports, but also in business and in life?

The Neuroscience of How We Think And Act

There are mounds of scientific evidence that can help us understand how we might be able to optimize our performance as human beings. In this Psychology Today article,  Christopher Bergland describes how we have two types of memories: implicit and explicit. “Implicit” memory involves anything we learn to do through repetitive practice. It  eventually gets stored in our long-term memory and becomes automatic, like riding a bike. Once we’ve learned the technique and acquired the basic skills, we never forget it. It’s engrained in our “muscle memory” and there’s no need to think about it anymore — thanks to the cerebellum (aka “little brain),  which is responsible for things like coordination, precision, and timing. While the cerebellum takes up only 10% of the brain’s real estate, it holds more than 50% of our brain’s total neurons. That’s quite a return on investment!

“Explicit” memory, on the other hand, is another kind of memory involving the conscious recollection of information, experiences and events.  It relies on the prefrontal cortex in the cerebrum, and involves what’s known as working memory. When we refer to someone as being “cerebral”, it means they are intellectual and put a lot of thought into what they’re doing.  In fact, sometimes, too much. Interestingly, the cerebrum takes up a whopping 90% of brain capacity!

Why Do We Choke Under Pressure?

Have you ever double faulted at a critical moment of a tennis match? Or perhaps, you froze up as a kid during the annual piano recital when you had practiced for hours on end and could play the piece perfectly at home in your living room –sometimes even with your eyes closed. Chances are, we’ve all choked in some way, shape, or form in situations that really mattered — and we’ve seen professional athletes do the same. It turns out we choke because explicit memory overrides implicit memory precisely when it shouldn’t. The cerebrum takes over. We think too much about the mechanics, the “what ifs”, or maybe we literally say to ourselves, “don’t screw up” which puts negative thoughts in our heads to create the dreaded self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, we’re not tapping into our cerebellum which — as the “little brain”, has something in common with Rodney Dangerfield: it gets no respect.

How Does This Apply to BusinessDecisions?

From a very young age, we are taught that it’s better to make rational decisions as opposed to emotional ones. We learn to analyze all information and variables related to the situation at hand, think about it for a while, weigh the pros and cons, and then make the appropriate decision that will yield the best possible outcome.  With all the advances around big data and in-memory computing – particularly the availability of big data in “working memory”, it’s no surprise that business leaders are relying more and more on analytics, or explicit memory to help them make the right decisions.  This is fine for routine decisions – though even here, I would argue, insights from big data should still be combined with instincts honed over years of experience.

However when faced with decisions that are non-routine, and specifically those in mission-critical, time-sensitive scenarios, too much data can overwhelm executives causing them to delay key decisions, often indefinitely.This “analysis paralysis” is the same thing that causes athletes to choke. In these scenarios, I think executives are better served by taking the cue from high performing athletes, using explicit memory to quickly narrow down choices, but trusting your implicit memory, and letting it override explicit memory to make the actual decision.  The key is to use data to show the way, but instinct to choose the path.

One of the best examples of non-routine decision-making under severe stress involves Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 who safely performed an emergency landing on the Hudson River in just 208 seconds. In this video, Captain Sully describes the power of experience and preparation that allowed him to execute calmly and flawlessly — despite the fact that he and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles had never before practiced a water landing specifically because the simulators wouldn’t allow it. “The fact that we got so much, so right, so quickly, under those conditions of crisis is a testament to our training, our preparation and years of experience, and the judgment that we’d developed”.

How The Best Decisions Are Made

Clearly, Captain Sully is the poster child for perfect decision-making under pressure. Choking simply wasn’t an option for him when confronted with a life-or-death situation — in this case, hundreds of lives saved. Going back to Bergland,’s article referenced above, if we  picture a north-south divide of the brain, both hemispheres of the cerebrum (up brain) and cerebellum (down brain) must work in harmony to create fluid peak performance — or  “flow“– in sport, in business, and in life. (More on “flow” in a future blog post).  A recent Economist Insights study pointed out that 90% of executives would NOT take a decision or a course of action suggested by data if it contradicted their initial gut instinct.

On a lighter note, for over 25 years, Nike’s “Just Do It.” tagline — one of the most iconic, emotional, and successful ad campaigns of all time — has been encouraging us to use our cerebellum and trust our instincts more. It’s about action fueled by the ultimate confidence, and then committing to it.  Captain Sully analyzed his odds relentlessly in mere seconds. With years and years of experience and training as a navy pilot, his instincts kicked in to make the right call at the right moment. He just did it, and then stood by it 100%.

The next time, you are in a high-pressure situation which requires a quick, clear decision, don’t overthink.  Trust and commit yourself to Just do it!


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