Q&A with Sian Leah Beilock, Performance Under Pressure Sage

Sian Leah Beilock is exploring the science behind why people “choke” in pressure-packed situations. Specifically, she examines factors in the brain and body that influence performance in stressful situations ranging from test taking, to public speaking, to sporting events. Using a variety of research methods, including assessing test performance to neuroimaging techniques, Sian’s work is aimed at better understanding how our cognition and reasoning skills change when we are under stress. Sian’s research is routinely covered in the media, including CNN, NPR, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2017, the National Academy of Sciences honored Sian with the Troland Award, in recognition of her pioneering work in experimental psychology. Sian has published two books and over 100 papers though her research. After serving as Executive Vice Provost of the University of Chicago, Sian was recently appointed as the eighth President of Barnard College. She spoke at TEDMED 2017, and you can watch her Talk here.


TEDMED: You were an athlete growing up, and in your talk you speak a lot about the pressures that athletes feel when it’s game time. How do you see athletic performance relating to the other types of performance pressures that people feel, such as those in the classroom or in the boardroom? Is there anything interesting to note in how these pressures are alike and how they’re different?

Sian Leah Beilock: I did spend a lot of time on the soccer field during my youth, and I learned, often the hard way, how the mental and the physical are linked. Later, as a scientist, I’ve studied this connection closely. Dealing with pressure is a universal. It doesn’t change, whether you have a golf club in your hand or a pencil. It’s the same. Accomplished athletes learn how to thrive when all eyes are on them—and by observing how they manage that and the strategies they use, we can learn a lot about how students survive the pressure of tests and how we can cope with other pressures of everyday life.

TM: In your Talk, you share how overthinking performance and trying to control the situation causes many people to flub under pressure. However, many people at the top of their fields are often considered to be “Type A” or even “control freaks.” It would seem that these people would suffer from what you call “paralysis by analysis,” and yet many seem to be thriving. How do you explain this seeming contradiction?

SLB: There is a time to focus on the details and a time to, as Nike regularly reminds us, “just do it.” When you are practicing and learning your craft, of course you have to pay close attention to the step-by-step process—that can be very important, even critical. But, my guess is, in the moment, when even the most Type A leaders excel, they are trusting their instincts and focusing on the outcome rather than the process. They are always keeping the big picture in mind.

TM: From practicing under the conditions you’ll be performing under to taking the time to write down all the worries and self-doubts circling around in your mind, your TEDMED Talk gave us some valuable strategies to employ when we’re looking to perform our best under pressure. We have a feeling that you have many more good tips, would you mind sharing a few more?

SLB: Well, here’s one tip that I try to use myself. Think about why you should succeed—rather than entertain the reasons why you might fail. I also recommend reinterpreting the signs that your body is giving you. Rather than your sweaty palms and increased heart beat being signs that you are freaking out, remind yourself that these physiological reactions are important and useful. They are shunting resources to your brain and body so that you can think and perform at your best.

TM: What was the TEDMED experience like for you? It would be especially interesting to learn more about how you prepared for the pressure of memorizing and presenting your Talk!

SLB: Believe me, I feel pressure like everyone else (maybe even more powerfully since that’s the crux of my research), but I also try to practice what I preach. Practicing— not just by yourself, but under the same conditions you are going to encounter when you perform—is what matters. It gets you used to what you are going to experience in the big moment. I talk about it as closing the gap between training and competition. I did this to prep for my TEDMED talk and it helped. I practiced on my own, but also in front of others—people I trust and whose opinions I value. I promise you it was nerve wracking every time, but it made the big day a little less daunting.