How to prevent choking

Dear Artist, “Choking” is when you know how to do something, do it often, and then, inexplicably and royally, you screw up. A golfer, for example, going for a three-foot putt, overshoots by seventeen feet, or, worse, gives the ball a dumb little three incher. Anyone can choke, but the more mature you are, the more often it can happen. Thinking is bad. The more time you have to think, the more likely you are to choke. Quick, intuitive thinkers don’t choke as often. Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago psychologist, says it has to do with roadblocks in the brain. She’s written a book to help people open up their roads. Mostly for sporty types and businesspeople, some of her findings apply to us. Singing helps. Apparently singing distracts the “analysis paralysis” that comes from knowing too much. I’ve found “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” by Noel Coward often does the trick and gets me to foreign places as well. For those who can’t sing, try humming. Humming is like a mantra; it calms the brain. In Beilock’s research, people who meditate choke less. Did I mention “Whistle while you work”? Pressure to perform, persistent worries, a guilty conscience and general nervousness are all causes of choking. Further, the mere act of trying to increase your control over something can backfire, disrupting what was once a fluid, flawless performance. Pressurized situations apparently deplete that area of your brain (prefrontal cortex) that contains what psychologists call “working memory,” a sort of mental scratch pad and info storage area. With stuff temporarily erased or obscured, it’s hard to get it back when you need it. Another choker Beilock identifies is “stereotype threat.” I had a hard time getting my head around this one, but I now realize it’s a biggie. For example, when someone thinks they can’t do math because of age, gender, race, or whatever, they often can’t. It has nothing to do with their natural ability, and all to do with their beliefs. Art students who know in their heart they can never do as well as their instructors, for whatever reason, won’t. It’s enough to make you think schools might be houses of choking. Come to think of it, maybe it’s best to hum your way around the course on your own. Best regards, Robert PS: “Highly practiced putts run better when you don’t try to control every aspect of performance.” (Sian Beilock, from Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To) Esoterica: Our brains are also in the business of sabotage. Steadfast practice tends to stymie the evil eye of sabotage. Further, it’s a good idea to groom yourself by practicing under a moderate amount of stress. “Think about the journey, not the outcome,” says Beilock. Having dealt effectively with prior stress makes working with high amounts of it easier. On the other hand, no stress at all may cause one to “choke by dawdling.”   Cows prevent choking by Leonard Skerker, Ann Arbor, MI, USA   The golfer crouched over his ball gets the “yips,” for which thousands of ways to solve the problem are described in the Internet. US tennis hackers know that the longer we have to wait for the ball to arrive the more likely we’ll screw it up. A super great surgeon I used to work with would, when things got hairy, start to hum. I guess it relaxed and focused (or defocused) him, but it certainly prompted all of us to go quiet and much more responsive. In one hospital in South London where I worked my mentor suggested that, if a procedure I was doing was going poorly, I should turn away, look out the window where there was a pasture containing some cows, then return and all would be fine — it worked. Something about pace, or change of pace, but your comments were right on.   Is anyone ever self-taught? by M Frances Stilwell, Corvallis, OR, USA  

“Arnica around Parker Falls”
oil painting
by M Frances Stilwell

I’ve never found a secret for success — or rather satisfaction in painting — other than integrity and approaching each painting as if it were the first time I’d seen a canvas. Some friends say I should be glad I never went to art school and when I look at some polished artwork I can understand their comments. At other times graduate artwork is simply terrific. Turner said, “The self-taught artist is poorly taught indeed,” but is anyone ever totally self-taught? That would mean being deaf to such comments as, “That doesn’t look like a tree!”   There is 1 comment for Is anyone ever self-taught? by M Frances Stilwell
From: Liz Reday — Oct 14, 2010

Wow I really love your painting! Art school doesn’t make any difference if you can make ’em like that!

  Not stupid, just choking by Patrick Lacey, Fresno, CA, USA  

“Truly Majestic”
oil painting, 5 x 7 inches
by Patrick Lacey

It is such a relief to learn that I have only been “choking” all these years. Up till now I thought it was a “stupid stick,” one that whacked me on the head when I got ready to paint. Singing helps… who knew? That explains why the Hail Marys didn’t work. From now on it will be Ave Maria.       There is 1 comment for Not stupid, just choking by Patrick Lacey
From: Stephanie Vagvolgyi — Oct 13, 2010

Thanks, Patrick. You made my day. Can you hear the chorus of all the Ave Marias?

  Whistle while you work by Maureen Brouillette, Dallas, TX, USA  

acrylic painting, 36 x 36 inches
by Maureen Brouillette

My dad, Al Brouillette, was a painter and liked to whistle under his breath when he painted. Even when he was doing a class or workshop! Now I have a better understanding why. I used to hum and whistle more while I was painting until the last few years when my work has gotten a lot more analytical. I have been conscious that my work has gotten way too left brain and not intuitive enough. Everything I have heard lately confirms my inner thoughts.       There are 3 comments for Whistle while you work by Maureen Brouillette
From: Robert Wade — Oct 11, 2010

Al Brouillette was a superb artist and a most enthusiastic teacher. How nice to be reminded of this true gentleman.

From: Nina Allen Freeman — Oct 12, 2010

your painting is amazing!

From: Nikki Atkinson — Oct 13, 2010

It is obvious that Al’s “apple” didn’t fall far from the tree. He was a true inspiration to so many. Keep up the good work.

  Pitcher wins back his form by Bill Skuce, Sooke, BC, Canada  

original painting
by Bill Skuce

My first ambition was to pitch pro baseball. I choked badly pitching in relief during my first season and was benched indefinitely. It was then a veteran catcher took me under his wing and worked me out daily till I was in the best shape of my life. One night before a game six weeks later, I was heading to the outfield to do pre-game laps while the infield practiced when I heard the manager’s voice behind me yell, “Skuce!” I swung round in time to see a new baseball arcing towards me. “Here, you’re pitchin’ tonight!” he said. I knew I was ready…and too surprised to be nervous. We won 10-0.       There is 1 comment for Pitcher wins back his form by Bill Skuce
From: Jan — Oct 12, 2010

Lovely story and fine painting, Bill!

  Conditions for choking by oliver, TX, USA  

“Blessings of the brother”
by oliver

I don’t worry about choking unless: Someone wants a short deadline. Sometimes this can be a request for proposal or request for grant or something like that and usually I have similars and/or; It is a one-time event (ok so my basic process is photographic but everyone calls and thinks of me as a painter). Actually I usually say to someone asking me to do wedding photos, “no” or if they are personal friends happy to but I suggest you hire a wedding photographer who will do all the standard shots in case I get distracted by shooting the groom tying his shoe laces (tying the knot celtic references etc.) and I would like to be one of the guests.   Gawkers help you bail by Jack Abelson   Usually I cough several times before I choke. I do plein air work. Over the years I’ve learned how to be pleasant with gawkers, yet keep them at bay so I can work. I let them look, I just don’t engage them. However, if, while I’m working, I’ve coughed a couple times — That is, a few light goofs before the big choke, I’ll let the next interesting gawker engage me. Usually I find I’m the better for it. My mind’s been unwound, my mis-focus has been abandoned, and some of these people are genuinely interesting. When I get back to work, it is often necessary to build up to full concentration again, but I find that often the coughs haven’t lead to the choke, and the work is the better for it. The brain is a strange ranger and the more I think about it, the less I understand. The key, though, is that I found an interesting tool to help me bail when my project is taking on water. So, well understood or not, I use it.   Needs advice on how to speed up process by Eve Salishur   There are days when a choke would be good. Most times when a painting goes south I experience a complete otolaryngologic, thoracic, and cardio meltdown. I sit on the floor surrounded by abused materials, look upward and gasp, Lord, take me now! Usually this happens very soon after having produced what I self-servingly consider a good piece. Since I don’t do pride, I’d say satisfaction comes before the fall. I’m probably sabotaging myself, but who knows. I’m only posting this to say that I envy people who only choke. My “little deaths” — not to be confused with the usual use of the term, but in the artistic sense — are really titanic. I’m usually resurrected from a watery grave in a few days, but I’d adore some really good advice on how to get through this period a mite quicker. At this point all I can tell you is that Scotch doesn’t work.   Techniques to avoid choking by Sharon Williams, Mississauga, ON, Canada   I never, ever try to paint or do anything creative without first picking out the music to play. In fact, the music starts, then I start organizing materials, allowing myself to be absorbed in the non-thinking mode needed to get my best pieces. I often sing along to help turn off the thinking side of my brain. I also like to move to the music to loosen up my muscles. The next anti-choke technique I use is to close my eyes and make any kind of mark on the paper or to start tearing up or cutting items that might collage into the work at some time. Next, instead of starting to paint, I might add a textural layer first. Rule of thumb: Do mindless things until you have turned off your mind. Some paintings that have been percolating in my brain for long enough (not that I know ahead of time what they might be) will start growing on the paper right away. Others take weeks of working out how to make the marks I see in my mind through trial and error. I may not know how they will be used or where; eventually they go down where they should go. Some paintings know how they want to start but not where they will go. I usually have half a dozen or so available to see if any are ready to go further. If stuck, I’ll go through the big portfolio of unfinished or “failed” work. The “failures” often need to be united with another piece by weaving, tearing and rearranging. I work in experimental abstract multi-media (everything except oils – turps are too toxic for me). Last item: I have cordless phones and make sure one is set up where I can see the caller ID. I avoid unimportant calls by letting them go to voice mail, but will answer those from a very short list. Hope one or more of these help. When all else ‘chokes,’ go to a back-up skill or different medium. If I can’t paint, I can sculpt clay or do sculptural crochet. Coming back to a painting later will often provide the answer I could not see before.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for How to prevent choking

From: Reva A Power — Oct 08, 2010
From: Susan Hales — Oct 08, 2010

This is what literacy investigators call “affect” or the phenomenon of “Mind Shame” which is what comes from being improperly encouraged for the good you have done and criticized solely on the mistakes you’ve made. Some of us had parents who knew no other method of parenting because of their own upbringing and fear of the shame of failure. It might come from the generation now deceased that had large families in which shame was the motivating factor that stern mothers and fathers used to influence the brothers and sisters to compete. On top of that, artists often are associated with a type of failure known as the “ne’er do well” for having chosen a creative career with its attendant uncertainties and lack of prestige. Good post.

From: Allana — Oct 08, 2010

A guilty conscience, yeseree!!! Look at Tiger Woods, my bet is that he’ll be in a serious bout of choke for some time.

From: Wendy — Oct 08, 2010

Whenever I choke I can hear my mother saying, “You loser!”

From: Del Johnstone — Oct 08, 2010

I choke because I am afraid of what winning will do to me.

From: Gavin Logan — Oct 08, 2010

Choke by Dawdling interests me. It seems when I have more time, I take more time, and I sometimes overwork. “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” usually referred to as Parkinson’s Law, is part of this formula. When there is lots of time, efficiency is neglected, and it is often efficiency that keeps things fresh.

From: Peggy Ramsey — Oct 08, 2010

What a wonderfully clever letter!!! But then they all are; it’s just that this one really tickled. Thank you.

From: Jerry Smith — Oct 08, 2010

I choke at workshops and whenever I’m being watched as I paint. That’s why I’ve just about given up but I haven’t known why. It helps to know that I may be able to work my way through this wall

From: Russ Henshall — Oct 08, 2010

A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting with some friends. After the meeting and during the main course of the meal, I suddenly choked seriously on the food. After a hard time for a few seconds, I suddenly realized that all was not well at all. I could neither rid the obstruction nor breathe. I was indeed choking to death; the world was rapidly receding and unconsciousness was very near. After what seemed an age, one of the group, who turned out to be a returning soldier from action overseas, leapt up to be my saviour. I thank the stars that he was so well trained. for he implemented the Heinlich manoeuvre! I discovered afterwards that this soldier had actually saved my life. It was when I read your ‘choking’ letter Robert, that I realized the parallel – for after that accident I have discovered that each day really is so vital in one’s life. Instead of ‘live now pay later’ it is more a question for me of ‘live now enjoy the later bit!’ Certainly the writing block I had been not enjoying was then lifted……… Trunch, Norfolk, England

From: Patricia Carmichael — Oct 08, 2010

This is interesting…this is why I work on 2 pieces at the same time….as I think about one, I can work on the other until I get to a point where the dialogue takes over…

From: Dan Young — Oct 08, 2010

I’m surprised that my Muse loves Maria Calas!!!!!!!!! It seems I can get into a meditative state when I don’t know the words………Indeed I do my best work when I set everything up then take a few moments to relax and play …… sometimes just putting on a beautiful undercoat and premixing beautiful piles of paint gets the juices flowing………

From: Jane Ross — Oct 08, 2010

Fantastic Robert! I like ’em all, but this piece is particularly and curiously apt. Made me think, but also ‘unthink’. Thank you for all the wonderful ‘waker-upper’ letters — and Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

From: Helen Musser — Oct 08, 2010

So many hazards in our way. The brain is a wonderful thing but, as you say, can botch the process. Good advice to free yourself from stress and hear music in your head or from the boom box.

From: Alice Wofford — Oct 08, 2010

I have always called this Painter’s Block… sort of like writer’s block. Any time it has happened to me, I simply change what I am doing, even if I’m on deadline, and either paint something I WANT to paint or go read a book. Either way I will take a few days away from what is blocking my work and when I return it is like the what was locking up the ability was never there.

From: Heather Bruce — Oct 08, 2010

I am on an Island and have been reading your letter on “choking”. Is this the same as performance anxiety gone a step further? I am an artist…..and an admirer of dog agility teams. My husband is 1/2 of 3 teams. I don’t know if you are familiar with agility or not, but in a nutshell, the team (dog and handler) navigates a course of obstacles and are scored and placed based on time and correctness of execution. One of the things that I have observed is just what you have mentioned in this letter on choking.

From: Mickey Lawler — Oct 08, 2010

Now you have me laughing! I paint outdoors in the sun on the hottest days of summer and often find myself singing “Mad Dogs and Englishmen…”

From: Jo Houtz — Oct 09, 2010

I have found that listening to audio books while working gives my left brain something to ” work” on while my right brain is painting. It sort of keeps both sides of the head busy and out of each others’ way. Choking or stalling happens less frequently when the whole brain is working.

From: Kris Preslan — Oct 09, 2010

“If you think you can, or you can’t, you’re always right!” I don’t remember who said it, but it fits right in with this week’s message.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Oct 09, 2010

However you put it, or however it sneakily masquerades, there is only one thing that I have identified as my choker — FEAR. To start brave and end brave is a sunny day at a happy easel for me. One thing that sometimes snaps me out of fear is anger — it gets me back into a power position back from the cowardly mood and makes me own my skill. It doesn’t always work. I’ll try singing but I doubt that will have enough kick to drag me from under the bed.

From: Haim Mizrahi — Oct 09, 2010

Integrity and honesty is what rest behind all the aspects of the creative process, be it music, poetry, painting, etc. When one feels funny or any other sensation that suggest to him, her, that he, she are not their usual selves, they should turn to their mental safe deposit box, open it and go through all their “saving accounts” to check the level of intimacy with one self that is so crucial for the stability of the creative individual, what I am trying to say is: one must accumulate reserves in the shape of enlistment for a rainy day to bail him out in times of confusion and uncertainty. I call it the PCs of the self in the face of the other.

From: Hanna Tiger — Oct 10, 2010

Taking more time is just as dangerous as hurrying through, in fact, more so. Choking mostly happens when I am not on a roll.

From: Daryl Profumo — Oct 10, 2010

Working with a small amount of stress is the principle behind Toastmasters. By speaking to a group of mostly sympathetic listeners who want t see the speaker succeed and get better, paves the way for public speaking before large audiences.

From: N. W. Wyndham — Oct 10, 2010

Yes, the self-taught artist, or at least the artist who at some time goes into the self teaching mode, is the one who succeeds. The vast majority of art school graduates do not take this important next step.

From: Nicole — Oct 10, 2010

I’ve always preferred to hum my way around my studio on my own.

From: Russ Andrews — Oct 10, 2010

It may be that as you get older your prefrontal cortex is getting depleted further and further, this the tendency of older artists to choke.

From: gail caduff-nash — Oct 10, 2010

YES. And to combat this stuff, I have found that working in the public view, while nerve wracking at first, really can make you more immune to that kind of stress. IF you just don’t acknowledge the public while you’re working and they make comments, other than to say thank-you (for kind ones). You might think you’re being facetious going out in public to paint when you’re not ready, but it is the only way to really get ready for that. Just like entering work in an exhibit helps you learn how to enter work into an exhibit. Takes a bit of boldness but it’s not going to kill you. And when in public, you start realizing that most all the people who come by don’t know anything about what you’re doing. So do as you will!

From: Suzanne Ecclestone — Oct 11, 2010

As always, your letters are very insightful and this one hit its mark with me. I have always called “choking” “blocking” but I guess they are one and the same. I used to tear up my IQ tests in high school because I would block, freeze, choke or whatever. When they told me I was university material I asked how they knew. They had my public school records. I had to chuckle though, when mentioning different situations where one can choke, you failed to mention sex! I wonder if singing helps?

From: Ron — Oct 11, 2010

I don’t know about singing, but music definitely helps.

From: Fay Lee — Oct 12, 2010

I have always sung or hummed, according to whether I was alone or other people were around. Then I read some place that you can’t think bad thoughts when you are singing or humming, so I had an excuse. It really does work.

From: mad elena — Oct 12, 2010

I just returned from an intensive workshop. The first two compositions simply flowed and I count them among my best. But the final one was another matter altogether. I felt creatively constipated – choked. Next time that happens I’d try humming my anxieties away.

From: — Oct 12, 2010

Anyone with a recent Charles Reid video will recognize the phenomenon; he whistles and blows as his brush lights up the paper. Little did I realize what was going on! Thank you Robert.

From: Angela Sullivan — Oct 12, 2010

I find this quite interesting. I have taken to choking lately. For a while my paintings just seemed to flow but lately I have felt stiff to say the least. I will try this different approach.

From: Rick Rotante — Oct 13, 2010

Choking is no more than a moment of doubt or indecision. Happens to everyone. Don’t fret over it, quickly move on to another area and do what’s needed and forget about it. Take a break. A real break. forget about the work and do something completely different. Years ago when I had a seemingly unsolvable problem, the first opportunity I had, I took a nap for about fifteen or twenty minutes. When I awoke, and resumed working, and answer seemed to present itself. If you “dog” it your in for hours of turmoil. Let it go and relax and choking will happen less and less.

From: Ted Berkeley — Oct 14, 2010

Did you know that stammerers improve by singing their words? Another kind of choking.

From: Jennifer Lawson — Oct 14, 2010

Not given to frivolous emailing – thought I had to provide you with a real odd ball response to this one! After having a batik and hand painted silk scarf business in my twenties & early thirties, I developed environmental sensitivities in my forties. After singing at the top of my lungs while painting for years – I had to stop. I still mourn that loss – and never knew why until your letter. I also changed my palette from cadmiums & cobalts first – then as more problems ensued – to as many natural pigments as possible.The earth colours, ivory black, rose madder – etc. I add in Ultramarine and Prussian blues and a yellow – and a warm red – when its unavoidable.(I use some plant pigments from Germany when available) I wear a British Respro mask (replaceable filters – for pollution) while painting – either outside – or with lots of windows open(on smoke free days) All this & a somewhat energy consuming ADHD 21 yr old son – and reduced marketing opportunities since my Vancouver Island relocation 22 years ago – have – yes -reduced me to a rather choked painter. After one gets in this almost paralyzing groove – how does one put an end to the ‘stereotype threat’ -that inevitably takes hold? I absolutely love your letters by the way – makes me feel a connection in an otherwise solitary profession – where it sometimes feels like we are all reinventing the wheel on a daily basis in our own little spaces. (Not really as depressing as it sounds – bit of poetic license – Life always unfolds as a never ending series of paintings for me!)

From: Rick Rotante — Oct 27, 2010

p.s. After more thought on this I realized one more reason for “choking”. I’ve found in the past that after working on a piece for awhile that refuses to come together, I begin to understand the idea itself was the problem. The original concept wasn’t thought out clearly and the results were the proof. It isn’t a crime to abandon an idea or rework the original idea. This ‘doubt’ many times is the cause of “choking”. We get caught up in the moment and don’t see the problem and feel it’s too late to stop now. Today, I wipe it off and rethink it. If I can’t resolve it now, I either leave it and come back another day. Art can’t be forced and needs to flow naturally.

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Galway Quays

acrylic painting by Phillip Morrison, Ireland

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes Lally Barnes Freeman who wrote, “A book that I heartily recommend is Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. It has helped me many times and I have given copies to numerous artist friends.” And also Helene Quigley from Facebook who wrote, “I’ve been singing and humming (and wiggling) for a lifetime and it really works.”    

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