You’re a Leader – You Can’t ‘Choke’

I recall a scene many years ago when I was a young executive at Procter & Gamble. We had all amassed to attend a big Company Presentation at Head Office and the large room was full of people like me – hundreds of us! The stage was set – the ‘Overhead Projector’ was strategically placed on the stage in front of the screen and one of the Company’s most senior executives marched on to present. He placed the laminate on the screen, turned on the projector and the image came on the screen perfectly focused and legible – so professional – he started to talk and THEN – he stopped – he almost literally choked! We all sat there aghast and concerned. He quickly recovered his composure and started to talk again and once again stopped and took a drink of water. This happened on four occasions but ‘trooper’ that he was, he got through and things started to flow….

We couldn’t comprehend why someone so senior could ‘choke’ like that, but no one is immune from the consequences of pressure.

Choking under pressure, where one freezes and under performs when it matters most — even despite deep expertise and years of practice — is well known in the world of sport. But how much do we hear about the ‘chokes’ that happen at work.

It manifests in different ways – loss of voice, confusion and failing to think clearly when a tough question is thrown at you by a manager – no one is immune.

Often in business we can learn from the world of sport and the ‘choking’ scenario is definitely one where how sporting people cope with pressure and the experience of ‘choking’ can help.

You’re most likely to choke when the external pressure, often subconsciously kicks in. Take the penalty kick in soccer – a soccer player can practice penalties and have a 100% conversion rate – but when asked to do it in front of 80,000 people in a semi-final what often happens?

These situations happen when you feel anxious or begin to question your abilities. The frustrating part is that this can happen completely unconsciously, meaning that while you think you’re ready, your unconscious brain has other ideas.

So how can you deal with your big ‘pressure’ moments at work – here are some thoughts and techniques…

Visualise Success

Golfing legend Jack Nicklaus famously said, “I never missed a putt in my mind.”

In the world of sport, star performers such as Serena Williams, Wayne Rooney, and Michael Jordan believe in visualising success by thinking about visualising previous successes in similar pressure situations. This has many benefits. It allows people to prepare mentally for various scenarios and allows them to manage expectations and emotions more effectively. Positive visualisation can enhance strength, accuracy, and endurance, as well as reducing anxiety and increasing the sense of control in emergency situations.

When preparing for a big moment at work, rehearse it in your mind in as much clarity and detail as you can. What will it look and feel like to walk into the room and present to many people? Picture the room, the lights, the layout, logging on to Zoom with many people already signed in – what will be the first words you say?

Make Sure You Practice for Pressure.

In sports athletes not only train their skills and abilities, they also train to cope with pressure.

Swimmer Michael Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, once stepped on and cracked Phelps’ goggles before a race, forcing him to compete “blind.” This experience proved useful when his goggles filled with water after he dived in during an Olympic race in 2008: “From the 150-meter wall to the finish, I couldn’t see the wall. I was just hoping I was winning” said Phelps. Not only did he win the gold medal, but he also broke a world record.

In business Steve Jobs was known for his stellar presentations, but also for the amount of practice he would put in. Rehearsal is important, whether you’re alone in your office or in front of a camera or crowd. You can raise the stakes by asking your audience to interrupt you, say a negative comment, or switch off your computer, forcing you to continue without your supporting slides.

Establish a Routine Before You Face a Challenging Situation

Rafael Nadal is said to have an elaborate 12-step court routine that lasts around 30 seconds.

A pre-‘performance’ routine can help you clear your mind, get into the moment, and get you into ‘autopilot’ state. At work, you might develop a short ritual, such as breathing exercises, repeating a phrase or mantra, listening to a particular song, sipping a favourite drink, or doing a few physical stretches in your office that can get you in the right frame of mind to tackle those first moments before your ‘autopilot’ can kick in.

Avoid Paralysis by Analysis

This can make you doubt yourself or focus too much on every aspect of a movement (e.g., the position of your leg and foot when kicking a ball) instead of letting it go (outside of conscious awareness), triggering a choke.

To avoid this, some athletes opt for “self-distraction” in the minutes or hours prior to a race or a game. Listening to music, reading, or doing something with your hands to stay out of your head are ways to escape from the surrounding elements and thoughts that could add pressure.

A wealth of research shows how mindfulness and meditation can calm the brain and nervous system, reduce anxiety, and improve performance.

Simply writing down your fears can also help alleviate them for performance.

Get Things in Perspective

Don’t let the anticipated results overwhelm your ability to perform (or your enjoyment). A loss doesn’t mean that you are a loser, and a win doesn’t mean that you are a winner.

For example, after winning gold at the alpine skiing world cup in 2020, Lara Gut-Behrami said: “It’s just a victory, it doesn’t change your life. There are more important things.”

Put any big moment into perspective by taking “the long view”, reframe any immediate “crises” so that you can see the big picture — whether that’s your values or your long-term goals. This will help you minimise the effects and importance of a single event.


Remember that no one is immune from pressure and ‘choking’ in a big moment. Take my P&G example at the start of this article. However, we can learn much from the greatest athletes in the world and through them understand that there are certain behaviours we can action and mindsets we can adopt that we can all practice to help prevent a choke and better navigate it when it arrives in our business world.

Need some help in dealing with business pressure? Contact us at or call us on 01162325231.

The Tinderbox Team