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The Stress Test

Optimize Blog - April 28, 2011 - 0 comments

As the final stages of the Champions League in Europe looms large for the four remaining teams, the Stanley Cup moves into the play-off rounds and the English Premier League moves into the final four games, the sports psychologists start to earn their wages.
Titles, success and stardom are up for grabs… provided nerves are held, confidence is kept high and the skills developed on the training ground are transformed into results. All this has to be achieved in the cauldron of vast sports theatres, where the hopes of literally millions of supporters and even the hopes of a country, rest on the shoulders of these sporting heroes.
Being part of a team is one thing but perhaps being an individual sportsman or woman trying to win a tournament holds even greater pressure. Take the case of Rory McIlroy at the Augusta Golf Masters just a few weeks ago. Talent and ability were clearly not issues for the young golfer as he moved into a seemingly unassailable lead but, as his nerve left him during the final round, he imploded quite dramatically.
Clearly those individuals reaching the heights of sports stardom are few and far between – the rarefied atmosphere is experienced by relatively few and the majority of us will never be put in the position where the hopes of a nation rest on our ability to score a penalty in the last minute of a final. Nevertheless this situation of losing our nerve does haunt us from time to time in our work lives.
Perhaps the CEO is visiting and, despite you completely understanding your department and your results, you turn into a gibbering wreck and lose the ability to function in front of him or her. Or, as you practice that presentation at home in front of the labrador everything seems fine… until you step out in front of the audience of 500 colleagues. Suddenly you forget your lines, grope for your notes and try to figure out what you meant when you wrote that particular bullet point on the slide.
According to Matthew Syed (the author of Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice) it is only in recent years that neuroscientists have glimpsed the answers as to why we are so prone to fail when we most want to succeed. After hundreds of hours of practice anyone can perform skills effortlessly, without any conscious control – this is the work done on the training ground and the individual becomes an expert and after all, players inevitably score penalty shots on the practice ground.
[youtube=] As an expert we use two completely different brain systems compared to a novice. Long practice enables experienced performers to encode a skill in implicit memory and they perform almost without thinking about it. This is called expert-induced amnesia. Novices, on the other hand, wield the explicit system, consciously monitoring what they are doing as they build the neural framework supporting the task. But now suppose an expert were to suddenly find himself or herself using the “wrong” system. It wouldn’t matter how good he or she was because now the action is at the mercy of the explicit system.
The highly sophisticated skills encoded in the subconscious part of the brain now count for nothing. All the practice and hours put into honing the skills fall by the wayside as we revert to using neural pathways we last used as a beginner.
This is the neurophysiology of losing our nerve. It is triggered when we get so anxious that we seize conscious control over a task that should be executed automatically. This is why player’s miss penalties or choke during critical pressure moments. The problem is not insufficient focus, but too much focus. Our conscious disrupts the smooth workings of the subconscious and we revert to being a novice again – letting the CEO wonder what on earth we are doing in a position of responsibility.
So now we know why we fall apart at the seams under pressure what can be done to avoid it? Well we are not sport psychologists but part of the solution comes in trusting in your own ability and reminding yourself that you know your subject is a good place to start. The point is not to ‘wing it’ but, rather, not to over-concentrate or analyze what you are trying to do. If you scrutinize your performance too much you will be priming your cerebral cortex to trip over your cerebellum, leaving yourself at a loss for words. But, if you focus on a single word or idea that sums up your entire presentation (“smooth” or “forceful,” for instance), you will be best equipped to prevent your brain from getting in its own way.
Many high level sports people, as well as people in incredibly stressful roles (such as hostage negotiators, military and political leaders) subscribe to a practical framework called ‘T-CUP’, which was developed by Yehuda Shinar and advocated by Sir Clive Woodward for the sports teams he coached.
The acronym stands for Thinking Correctly Under Pressure and requires that the individual reflects on previous experiences as well as imagined and predicted situations – so that they can ‘program’ their typical responses accordingly. In simple terms, if you think about how you would like to respond in those circumstances (acknowledging probable stress levels) and play the scenario over repeatedly in your mind, you can modify your natural tendencies where necessary and improve your thought processes and actions in future.
The more we practice reflecting and developing our ability for critical thinking, the faster and easier the process becomes and the greater the level of essential ‘self-awareness’ we will have. In turn we can then practice how we might perform in high pressure situations. ‘Practice makes perfect’ is true for thinking and stress management too.
In a practical sense, part of the key is not being overconfident in advance and recognizing that you may feel well more anxiety than you expect. You should address any concerns in advance and you don’t want to have any second thoughts about your likelihood of success.

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