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On PBS, a University of Chicago prof asks: Can you take a choke?

Sian Bellock is featured NOVA/PBS documentary art 'choking' from test taking golf soccer.  She spoke from her office University

Sian Bellock is featured in a NOVA/PBS documentary on the art of "choking", from test taking to golf and soccer. She spoke from her office at the University of Chicago on October 17, 2012. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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‘NOVA ScienceNOW’

10 p.m. Wednesdays on WTTW-Channel 11

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Updated: November 25, 2012 11:25AM

Sian Beilock is not afraid to talk about her biggest choke.

An accomplished soccer player, Beilock was a 16-year-old goalie in the U.S. Olympic development program when a national coach came to scout her. While his eyes were on her, Beilock allowed two goals and her team lost the game. Her Olympic dream ended.

And a new life began.

Beilock is now a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and one of the world’s leading experts on the brain science behind “choking under pressure.” She operates the Human Performance Lab at the school, part of which features a putting green to help golfers to overcome choking.

Beilock is featured in the acclaimed science magazine television series “NOVA scienceNOW” in an episode airing at 10 p.m. Wednesday on WTTW-Channel 11. She talks about how to resolve the different styles of choking — from parallel parking to the pressures facing American students who take the 100 million standardized tests a year.

Choke is a hard word to swallow.

“The soccer experience was devastating,” Beilock said during a cognitive conversation in her campus office. “I wanted to harness everything I did in practice, but it was a crapshoot walking onto the playing field as to whether my best foot would come forward or if I would crumble.

“But it wasn’t just in sports. There were times I didn’t test as well as I could have. I realized it wasn’t a one-to-one match between what you knew and what you did. That intrigued me. I wanted to understand what happened in the brain and body, ironically when we want to perform at our best but sometimes we don’t succeed. It was also interesting that some people didn’t fall prey to these chokes while others did.”

Beilock has learned that emotional reactions under pressure can overpower focus.

“It’s like if you’re a computer and running many programs at once,” she said. “Everything slows down.”

Has she talked to Theo Epstein?

“The Cubs are a perfect example of the stereotype on a team to fail,” said Beilock, who has lived in Chicago for eight years. “A whole team can choke, and it turns out there is some contagious quality in that if you see a teammate performing poorly that will more likely prime that poor performance in you. And it may not just be because of what you watch. You feel pressure because your teammates aren’t doing well and you feel it is all upon you.

“And, if you’re aware this team has a history of not succeeding, that can be enough to perpetuate the choke.”

Saloon singer Jimmy Damon has sung the national anthem more than 1,500 times at Chicago venues ranging from Wrigley Field to the old Chicago Stadium since 1971, but he still worries about pulling off the tricky melody.

“I’ll be honest, I get up there and I say, ‘Am I going to remember it?’ ” said Damon, the inspiration for Bill Murray’s “Nick the Lounge Singer.” “I don’t put too much doubt in my head but there is doubt in there. I try to practice when I can. I got nervous the first time I sang it before a Bears game at Soldier Field. I was not used to the delay. For a second I was listening to myself, but I caught myself.”

Beilock wrote the 2010 book “Choke (What The Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To” ($15 paperback, Simon and Schuster) and is a regular blogger for Psychology Today. She grew up in a supportive family in the San Francisco Bay area. Her parents were attorneys. Her late father, Steve, played water polo at University of California-Berkeley.

“But with all those resources came pressure to succeed,” she said. “That’s where a lot of my interest in this came out.” Beilock received a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science from the University of California-San Diego and Ph.D’s in kinesiology (sports science) and psychology from Michigan State University.

Beilock, now 5 feet 10 inches, began playing soccer at age 7 on a boys team in Northern California.

“I realized I played better when people were expecting me to play well,” Beilock said. “I’m very interested in how women perform in science and math situations when they are aware of expectations that girls shouldn’t be in these areas. It turns out that if someone expects you to fail because you are a minority, your gender or if you’re a white guy in sports and they say ‘white guys can’t jump’,” just being aware of those things affects how your brain and body operates.”

Beilock lives downtown with her partner Dario Maestripieri, a University of Chicago biologist, and their three children. Downtown parking spaces are tight.

“I choke at parallel parking all the time,” Beilock said with a laugh. “He’s the best driver you ever met. It’s intimidating to be in the car with him. We have stick because he’s Italian.

“I’m a very good parallel parker when he’s not around.”

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