5 Things: How Cognitive Science Informs Performance Strategies

One ET’s Take on Dr. Sian Beilock’s Research

Eager to promote women in science… I bring you “5 Things” based on Dr. Sian Beilock’s “Choke” talk. She is a renowned scientist and scholar who helps promote performance success through her research at University of Chicago and work at Barnard Women’s College in New York City.

Often in educational therapy we ask about learning, “Under what conditions?” to help inform supports.

I am always looking for the moments, circumstances, and environments that make the difference for a learner in terms of success or struggle. What conditions take place for a student when they experience success, or the opposite, when their performance didn’t come through? The essence of frameworks is addressing the oft-ignored “how” piece of learning which connects to the conditions.

Inconsistent performance can be confounding. Sometimes I refer to the “now you see it, now you don’t” moments for learners – when something appears intact as learned, and then it’s not available when needed at another moment. My role is to catch both moments, and notice what circumstances might be involved. In connection with an individual learner’s needs and strengths, we work together to develop more consistent performance.

Performance is not just the big moments – for many learners performance is daily – in a classroom, in front of a parent – trying to deliver an answer or complete a task that is being asked. Caring parents and educators are unsure why a student may not be able to show what they know – but our kids are eager to perform for us, and do it well. These daily demands, for some, engage the same cognitive and emotional systems that are involved during performances in high stakes testing or at a big game.

It’s worth taking time to learn about what is involved according to the research. This is where the work of a cognitive scientist can help…

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Today I came across a 2017 TED MED talk of one of my favorite cognitive scientists, Sian Beilock. This talk addresses her research about choking in performance moments. She asks, “Why do we sometimes fail to perform up to our potential under pressure?” She is interested in science-informed psychological tools to help us perform at our best…

And hey – me too!! Those are the tools that ETs use…

So here are my five Educational Therapy takeaways from her research and comments.


1 – We all choke at some point.

2 – Practice under the conditions of performance matters.

3 – We often get in our own way.

4 – Unhook the prefrontal cortex.

5 – Environment affects whether we choke or thrive.

(Click here for the full talk.)

Read on for the longer explanations and tips…


1 – We all Choke

Performance might mean with music, theater, singing, on a test, at a soccer game, a school presentation, a job interview, or a business pitch. Given that these are demands throughout life – we all experience the ‘choke’ moment. We feel what Dr. Beiolock calls ‘evaluative eyes’ on us in many ways at different times. It can even be in simple moments – tallying the tip at a restaurant with friends, retrieving a name, or parallel parking.

The book “Choke” by Sian Beilock


My ET Take:

  • I am always holding awareness that what a student can or can’t do at a given moment may vary based on the moment in time and circumstances. ETs, parents, and educators can try to notice the variables that make a difference.
  • It is worth talking to students about how normal it is to choke at times. It’s important to connect to let them know they are not alone, and to “stay in the game”, so to speak – to find a way to work through it to show what we can do.


2 – Rarely do we Practice under the Conditions of Performance

Dr. Beilock explains that we can feel ready and then not be able to perform. She attributes this to not practicing in actual conditions and  “as a result when all eyes are on us, we sometimes flub our performance.” The ability to get used to what it will feel like in the testing room, on the stage, or in front of the classmates, will make the difference. It’s important to allocate time to learn how to practice under stress with a set up of the conditions.


My ET take:

  • As a distinction, emerging learning needs to take place without the pressure and anxiety, which is a big focus of ET work. Step by step learning is the first phase. Ideally, this should include a framework that is well-known to hold content or conditions in a highly familiar way.
  • At some point, there needs to be a shift from the low pressure, step by step, scaffolded learning into the integrated practice, then pressure practice that might promote successful performance. Students need to know the point that they are ready for this shift. Educators can make it explicit, to promote the confidence needed to perform. For ETs, this will help bridge from the ET office into the performance environment.
  • Once material is learned, students  can create individual practice plans that replicate the circumstances of the performance. The plan might include a group of friends testing each other, timed practice, or giving a presentation to family.
  • Luckily smart phones have many tools built in that can help with presentation practice – videoing or recording.


3 – We Often Get in our Own Way

We worry. Dr. Beilock says we can pay too much attention to what we are doing, trying to control aspects that “are best left on autopilot.” She calls this over-attention “paralysis by analysis”, which I love of course – because it rhymes, and because it’s true. 😉 She shares the words of Dancer George Balanchine: “Don’t think, just do!”


My ET take:

  • Low pressure learning and emphasis on automaticity with the underlying skills, such as typing, handwriting, decoding, and calculation are essential for developing the ability to perform at higher levels. Frameworks offer an automatic tool to hold more complex tasks in an autopilot space.
  • Students need to experience and recognize the feeling of “flow” so that they can identify it and access it when they need to.
  • Mindfulness practice can help support accessing other parts of ourselves with the cue of a breath or word to step out of analysis, by “watching it” float by, thus detaching from the paralysis.


4 – How to Unhook the Prefrontal Cortex

Get out of the way, pre-frontal cortex!

Giving us our much needed daily dose of cognitive science, Dr. Beilock reminds us that the prefrontal cortex is the front part of the brain that usually can help with focus and organization. However, this super center can trip us up when it’s performance time, when thinking of too many details throws us off the game. She indicates that something as simple as singing a song or focusing on one thing can shift us out and give a ‘reboot.’ Or simply jotting down thoughts and worries prior to performing can make them less prevalent in the mind: Putting it on paper makes it less likely to pop up in the moment, so that you can perform when it matters.


My ET take:

  • Help learners find the shift point – What shifts us out of our consciousness and overthinking? This pivot point is particular and distinctive to each of us – and is worth noticing.
  • Some things to sample depending on the situation: singing, writing, walk away, skip a question and come back, humor, doodling, talking it out with someone, a sip of water.
  • Learning how to manage focus by focusing in on one thing promotes staying in the zone – using a mantra, identifying a single outcome, write the one goal on a post-it to be able to return to it.
  • Mindful training (yep, again!) – Mindful practices and access to the breath allow us to shift our mind-body reaction to a new space.
  • Visualize – Using our visual brain is often different than the prefrontal sequential-analysis approach. Try to manage access to holistic-whole picture visual thinking, which may support an unconscious flow for more optimal performance.


5 – Our Environment Influences the Choke Risk 

Greg Rakozy Spiral Jetty
Environment Matters for Learning and Performance

Dr. Beilock explains that a choking response doesn’t only come from within us – our surroundings and social conditions have an effect. She is referring especially to the human influences in our environment. With math as an example, she and her team researched the brains of those who have a fear of math. They found that the brain centers that correlate with pain are active when math anxiety is studied – proving that math can in fact feel painful! Further, they found that “math anxiety is contagious” from the adults around a learner. Kids learn less when their parents and teachers are worried, then perform worse – girls are particularly susceptible to this. Her team found that making the studying more relaxed and anxiety-free, using tools such as fun story problems, led to changed outcomes of performance in their studies.

Bedtime Math


My ET take:

  • Notice our own frame of mind when we try to “help” our kids with math or other subjects that create anxiety for us. Our state of mind can be contagious – so try to shift our mindset and language to help frame it as an opportunity to take on a challenge, and grow, even when it’s difficult. 
  • Look for tools and materials that include humor, play, and music. “Bedtime Math” is an example to try.
  • Games are essential for practice that helps build automaticity toward performance – giving practice that can feel both competitive and performance-driving, while also fun and social.


As Dr. Beilock sums up, it’s about “learning how to overcome…limits when it mattered most…what happens in our head matters.” This will apply on playing fields, in classrooms, on stages, and in boardrooms. So learning how to manage our heads is essential lifelong for all of us to demonstrate learning and perform under pressure.

What are your strategies under pressure? What helps your students or kids to shift out of “analysis paralysis”? When do they ‘choke’ and what helps? Please feel free to post your experience, comments, and questions!




I’ve been excited to follow Dr. Sian Beilock for a long time now ~ connecting to her research combining cognitive science with performance questions. I am actually particularly excited about her work around ’embodied cognition’ given how I witness the benefits of aligning a kinesthetic component in the learning process (that may be worth revisiting in a separate post). Dr. Beilock is not only a cognitive scientist, but also a professor and scholar. When I first started seeing her work, she was a professor at University of Chicago and today I learned that she is now also promoting women’s education as the President at Barnard College. 

Thank you for your important work, Dr. Beilock!

Dr. Sian Beilock

Links for more info:


University of Chicago – Human Performance Lab

Barnard College – President Sian Beilock

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