As the new host of How To!, David Epstein, investigative journalist and author of Range and The Sports Gene, is ready to take on listeners’ toughest problems. As a former science writer for Sports Illustrated, David’s first case is right up his alley. Juliet is a public defender-turned-realtor in her 40s who is one of the best tennis players in her community league but can’t stop choking under pressure. She worries about what people might think about her and that self-consciousness is stifling her competitive edge. On this week’s episode of How To!, Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College and the author of Choke, reveals the science of why we sometimes play our worst when it matters the most. Beilock says it’s all too common for women to shy away from competition for fear of being labeled “not nice,” and she has the tips for helping Juliet, and the rest of us, break through that self-consciousness on and off the court. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
David Epstein: Juliet, can you tell us about why you reached out to us?
Juliet: I played tennis in high school but then I did not play until I was 45. When I picked it up again I was instantly addicted. I now strength train, work out, and the game I want to play is an athlete’s game. But when I am on the tennis court I become very self-conscious. I have trouble setting aside, “Am I going to look stupid? Am I going to do something that will alter people’s perception of me in a way I won’t like?”
David: When you wrote in you mentioned a match against someone you called a “frenemy.” Can you tell us about that?
Juliet: So this is a social friend who is also a realtor, somebody that could be on the other end of a deal with me. I was just so focused on “don’t look stupid” and then the more you think “don’t look stupid,” you start to do things that actually are stupid. And I hit the same three or four shots badly over and over again. [This was a doubles match, and the other team] started to see how I was choking, so they hit directly to me, almost taunting me. My partner finally just said, “Just try to not even hit it. Let me get everything.” It was a really important match. If we had won that match, my team would have been the winners of that entire season. So I need to be able to do the mental piece to get to this next level.
Sian Beilock: I think Juliet has hit the nail on the head that the mental aspect is so important here. And it sounds like she has a lot of the physical skill, but it’s about finding the right psychological tools to pull out the best performance when it matters most.
David: Sian, what personally got you interested in the science of choking?
Sian: I played soccer at a high level growing up in the Olympic Development Program, and I had the worst game of my life in front of the national coach. I realized a little bit into the game that he was standing right behind my goal. And just like Juliet, I remember being so self-conscious of everything—what cleats I was wearing, the temperature. I played horribly. I could not make the kinds of saves I normally did and let a ball in through the front post, right under my arm, something that I would have saved a thousand times in practice. The coach walked away and I knew that was it. I remember going home and being so frustrated and for the life of me couldn’t figure out how all the hard work I put into this important aspect of my life seemed to have vanished in one second.
That experience really pointed me in the direction of wanting to understand human performance, wanting to understand why when we want to perform so well, we counterintuitively don’t put our best foot forward. What it made me realize is that you can’t kind of leave your performance in those pressure situations up to chance. There are ways to practice to get ready for those situations. It’s clear that Juliet cares a lot about what other people think about her, which is normal. And it’s an interesting situation because it’s not like you play an opponent and never see them again. It brings this added complexity to what’s going on because there’s a spillover from what happens on the court into one’s social life. The first question I would ask you, Juliet, is do you look at the women who are winning as not being nice or not being likable?
Juliet: Yes, and no. Some of the women whom I’ve met first through tennis and then gotten to know them socially, I started out being a little intimidated by and I think it’s because I associate their on-court persona with who they are. And then as I’ve gotten to know them, I learned, oh, she’s a nice, normal person.
Sian: I would use that, right? You realize that you can have the game face on the court and be a really relatable, nice person who probably has a lot of humility off the court. I would remember that you’re OK with people that coexist like this. I keep coming back to this psychological phenomenon we often talk about as spotlighting. It’s this idea that we’re paying way more attention to ourselves than anyone else is because everyone else is paying attention to themselves. The best examples of this are when you raise your hand and say something that you think is foolish in a work meeting, and then you turn to your friend later and ask, “Did you hear that comment? Oh my God, I’m so embarrassed.” And your friend is like, “I don’t remember that.” There’s actually work that I’ve done and that others have done that shows that if we remind ourselves about the spotlighting phenomenon it actually relieves some of the pressure.
David: What other practical tips could be useful for Juliet?
Sian: We know that mantras can be really important. It may be that you write it on your hand during games because in those moments where you have this tendency to turn inward focusing on something outside can be helpful. In psychological terms we talk about this as an approach strategy rather than an avoidance strategy. So when you’re avoiding things, you’re trying to prevent a negative outcome, but when you’re approaching things, it’s all about gaining something. It turns out the brain works differently in those situations, and so thinking about why you want to win and why you should win can really matter. And I will say that this is something that often tends to affect women and girls. We’re very concerned about what others think of us and there is this notion that being competitive and being successful is at odds with being likable. It’s really something that we have to fight against.
David: Juliet, you’ve expressed that you were affected by this mentality in your professional life, is that right?
Juliet: Yes, I absolutely want to have a game face for business, too. And I do think having this competitiveness that I can turn on will help. Pretty much throughout my entire life, I’ve had a front row seat to the experience of somebody is going to win. And I’ve sat back and let it be other people. I think it’s dawned on me as I’ve grown older, why can’t I raise my hand and put myself front and center for that? I do think it’s built from decades of women being rewarded for being collaborative and agreeable—the one who’s willing to take things on when they’re asked versus reaching out and going for things affirmatively.
I was thinking about this just the other day. When I was a brand new public defender, there were several of us who were all new together. Things got competitive when it came time for promotions and it was a very clear-cut gender line where all of the women decided to sit back. Unbeknownst to the women, each of the men on their own had gone to management and raised their hand for a more rapid promotion. They just viewed it as that was what you do.
Sian: That’s a really interesting story because there’s new research coming out—the Wall Street Journal did a study last year with McKinsey & Company—about women in the workplace. One of the things that they show it’s at that second rung where women start to fall off—the promotion from your initial position. It sounds like, Juliet, that’s exactly what you’re describing.
Juliet: I never really even thought about my being a competitor. Maybe this goes back to how I view myself. And of course being a public defender is a tough, competitive job. You go in and the judge might be really mean or you’re up against tough witnesses. I guess I never really give myself credit for being competitive in those ways. And for some reason, sports is my last frontier.
Sian: Reminding yourself of the fact that you are succeeding in these other areas is really important. And after hearing Juliet describe everything going on, I’m not worried at all that she’s going to succeed on the court, too.
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To hear more of Sian’s tips for Juliet as well as the inside scoop on how Serena Williams gets her head in the game, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! wherever you get your podcasts.