March 21, 2014

It’s Friday Rest Day Book Review! Today we’re reviewing Choke: What the secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. by Sian Beilock.


Beilock’s book is all about how not to choke under pressure. I think the reason I chose this book is obvious – I don’t want to do all this training and then “choke” at the real thing. :)

Beilock does a great job of providing some examples of professional sports figures “choking” or failing under pressure, though there aren’t any endurance sports examples. What she does a great job of is describing the science behind “choking.” She primarily spends her time talking about two well known phenomenons in psychology known as “paralysis by analysis” and Stereotype Threat.

Paralysis by analysis occurs when people try to ensure they are successful by attempting to control every aspect of what they are doing. That doesn’t sound like any triathletes you know, does it? ;) BUT, this attempt at total control can backfire by using too many resources in our brain, and then disrupting what was once a fluid, flawless performance.

This may be more applicable to instances such as a golf swing, but I could see it also being relevant to triathlon. For example, if you are overthinking your transition, you might actually slow yourself down by all that analysis. Beilock describes that one of the ways to get over this is to occupy our brains with something else, such as repeating a statement or humming a song. By doing this, you allow your muscle memory to take over and complete the task without all that interrupting from the brain. So when you head into transition, you may be best off repeating a statement such as “smooth is fast” or humming a song, rather than trying to go through a list of all the things you need to do in transition. Granted, this assumes you’ve practiced your transitions and they are at least somewhat automatic…but you already knew you were supposed to practice transitions many times before race day, right?

The other psychological phenomenon Beilock does well with describing is Stereotype Threat. Stereotype Threat is the phenomenon that when we encounter a stereotype, we often end up living up to it, as in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Beilock spend most of the time in her book describing this effect on academics, but again I think we can see the effect on triathlon without too much difficulty. We may have all kinds of stereotypes about what an age group athlete, or in an athlete of a certain age-group, and so on, can and cannot do. We probably also have internalized some beliefs about what our performance may be based on our gear, body composition, gender, and so on as well. This is all B.S., and if you listen to it, you may end up doing less than you are capable of.

So when you’re putting on your wetsuit next to that professional athlete with what appears to be 0% body fat, and you start thinking “there’s no way I could do as well as that pro,” what do you do? First – move! You’ve wandered into the wrong area!! ;) Seriously though, remind yourself of all the people you know who don’t fit that stereotype that are successful athletes, and do some positive self-talk and tell yourself that you are a great athlete. For example – “I don’t need a $10,000 bike to be a strong cyclist.” You could also visualize yourself doing really well, crossing that finish line strong, just like that pro! I guarantee you will do better than if you had your head full of negative thoughts.

Overall, it’s a bit science heavy, but totally worth the read.

BTW, Beilock hosts a great column for Psychology Today that you can read here.


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