How did Kobe Bryant score 81 points in a single NBA game? How did Rory McIlroy bounce back from choking at the 2011 Masters to winning the US Open shortly after? Martin Turner, a lecturer at Staffordshire University in the School of Psychology, Sport, and Exercise, says it’s all about their mental game.
I had a chance to connect with Turner this week to talk about the psychological skills top performing athletes use to enhance their performance. Turner, who is an expert in human performance under pressure, says business leaders can gain a competitive edge by using the same skills top athletes use to thrive under pressure. He’s written a book with fellow psychologist Jamie Barker titled, What Business Can Learn from Sport Psychology: Ten Lessons for Peak Professional Performance. (Disclosure: Turner’s book references my article – 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do but I don’t have any joint business ventures with him). He’s agreed to share some of his insights about why some people perform well under pressure while others simply crumble.
It’s a Mental Game
What separates good athletes from extraordinary athletes is often their ability to perform in high pressure situations. The best skills in the world aren’t valuable if athletes can’t perform in when it matters most – in competition. Two people with very similar skills and training can perform drastically different when faced with high-pressure situations. “The key difference between those who get the Gold medal and those who don’t is between the ears,” says Turner.
Turner has taken the knowledge he’s gained from studying athletes’ performance and figured out how business leaders can apply similar skills to high pressure situations. Whether it’s meeting with a high profile client, or responding to a media interview, Turner says, “Business leaders can learn to develop robust psychological skills to help them fulfill their potential under pressure, and importantly, help others around them fulfill their potential.” In both sports and business, people who are able to use their mind as a valuable weapon beat out the competition when performing under pressure.
Performing in High-Pressure Situations
Ever wondered why some people thrive under pressure while other people seem to crumble? Turner says it’s all in the way we initially respond to stress. The initial response to stress occurs unconsciously and automatically based on our initial rapid evaluation of the situation. Some people are able to respond in a manner that helps their performance, known as a challenge state. But, other people enter into a threat state, which hinders their performance.
When faced with a stressful situation, we experience a physiological response – sweaty palms, muscle tension, dry mouth, nausea, and an increased heart rate. “The human stress response is a wonderful feat of evolution, which is triggered automatically at the first sign of danger,” explains Turner. While our ancestors faced dangers – like hungry lions – today’s dangers are more psychological – like public speaking. Despite the changes in the types of danger we face, our fear is still triggered by comparatively minor stressors as if we were facing life or death challenges.
Turner explains, “A challenge state reflects a positive mental approach to pressure situations where our mental resources meet the demands of the situation.” We endure physiological changes – like an increased heart rate and decreased blood vessel constriction – that allow blood to be delivered to the brain efficiently. This helps us concentrate, make decisions, and have control over our thoughts and emotions.
Those who don’t enter into the challenge state, enter into a threat state. During the threat state, the heart rate increases like in the challenge state. But this time, the blood vessels constrict, which means, which means the blood pumped from the heart remains largely unchanged. As a result, the delivery of glucose and oxygen to the brain – which is essential to peak performance – is inefficient and our ability to focus and make decisions is hindered.
Crumbling Under Pressure
If you think back to times when you haven’t been successful, you may recall that you likely felt worried and uncertain prior to your performance. The fear of failure, or concern about making a bad decision, can cause us to overthink the situation. Professor Sian Beilock, and the author of Choke, has coined this as “paralysis by analysis.” Overthinking can destroy our ability to perform at our full potential. In fact, overthinking while under pressure can cause us to fail when performing tasks that we’d normally consider to be relatively easy.
When you enter into a high-pressure situation, it’s important that you’re able to focus on the task. If you’re so busy worrying about how you’re going to perform, you’ll waste essential brain power. Ironically, one of the ways most of us try to approach a stressful situations is by telling ourselves, “Don’t mess up,” or “Don’t fail.” However, saying, “Don’t fail,” actually increases the chances that you’ll fail . “A vast amount of research shows that telling yourself not to do something actually – and ironically – increases the likelihood of doing it,” says Turner.
Professor Daniel M. Wegner demonstrated this with his famous “white bear” experiment. He told participants not to think about white bears. But as soon as people expended conscious energy trying to avoid thinking about white bears, they recognized the task was impossible. The more they tried not to think about white bears, the more likely an image of a white bear would enter their minds.
Turner points out that our desire to avoid failure triggers two simultaneous mental processes. One is a conscious process where we search our minds for items consistent with our goal, such as familiar surroundings. The second is an unconscious process where we ensure that any threats are recognized and addressed. This process expends a lot of mental energy and depletes us of the resources we need to focus on our goals.
“Therefore, your ability to focus on aspects that will help you perform is impaired and your ability to focus on aspects that will lead to failure is enhanced,” warns Tuner. When you’re experiencing anxiety about the pressure you’re under, you’re more likely to think and act in ways that are directly opposed to your goals.
Clearly, it takes some extra effort to get our body into the right state so we can perform optimally. “How the body reacts under pressure is dictated by the mind,” explains Turner. Entering into a stressful situation with a positive mental approach leads to a challenge state. But, if you approach a tough situation with negativity, you’re more likely to enter into a threat state.
Successful people are able to thrive because they enter into high pressure situations in a challenge state. The good news is, we all have the ability to do this. Next week, in part two of my interview with Martin Turner, he’ll reveal the secrets to performing at your peak when you’re faced with high-pressure situations.
Via Amy Morin at Forbes