There is but one cause of human failure And that is man's lack of faith in his true Self. - William James
How do you react to stress? To an unexpected obstacle, to a challenge, to a pressure situation that seems unbearably overwhelming? Your physical self has an automatic reaction, activation of the sympathetic nervous system, or what we would call our ‘flight or fight response’. Our heart rate increases, our pupils and blood vessels dilate, the rate of blood flow to the brain and skeletal muscle increases, and glucose and adrenaline are released into the system, all of which combine to increase our level of preparedness for the task ahead. But your mental perception of that stress, and the perception of your own resources for facing it, are actually the biggest determining factors in your performance. You have to first believe you are capable of succeeding, before you can leverage these physical changes and perform to your true capacity. Observing elite athletes in action, or retroactively discussing their performance, it’s clear to see that their sense of self-efficacy is a huge determining factor in their ability to perform to their potential. We need to add to our toolset a means of handling the unique stressors that come with game-day situations, so that when the time comes we can utilize this excited state, and choose to fight instead of flee.
A famous example of prior work that has examined the relationship between the level of arousal and performance is the Yerkes Dodson law (also, see IZOF model). When plotting the two, we see an inverted U relationship, where performance improves to a point, but then begins to degrade at higher levels of arousal.
Yerkes-Dodson Law depicting arousal vs performance
Using this model as a guide, many coaches and athletes have developed an understandable caution around having relatively high levels of arousal. They will often advise their athletes or themselves to ‘calm down, take deep breaths, control your emotions’, for fear of falling off the back end of this plot into the zone of diminishing returns. What is missing from this equation is the concept of emotional valence, or the idea that certain emotions can share an arousal level but represent very different experiences. Combining valence with arousal level, now we have a clearer depiction of the true range of emotions that someone can go through as they become stimulated.
When faced with a high pressure situation and the stress response associated with it, there are still the two options of fight or flight. Referring to this new layout we can see that these states have similar levels of arousal but would reside on opposite spectrums of the valence axis (i.e. excited vs stressed out). In the psychology literature, the fight or flight options would be referred to as an individual being in a challenge or threat state, respectively. What’s important here is that while both have a high level of arousal, the perception and physical manifestation of the experience is different between them. Some differences include
So how can we direct ourselves or our athletes into one state over another? Specifically, how can we re-appraise our level of arousal to enter a challenge state and avoid a threat state when in a high pressure situation? We want to provide actionable steps that can be taken to ensure that the next time you’re faced with a stressful situation, you actively view your resources as being greater than the level of demand associated with the task, and tell your body and mind that you’re ready to fight, and win. Studies in the field of psychology have found that being in a challenge state improves and facilitates objective measures of performance, while being in a threat state impairs performance, and we can see from the above differences why that might be true. And what’s really interesting is that this relationship holds across a variety of tasks and contexts, from high level sport performance to fine motor skills to solving math problems.
Conscious deliberation of demand vs resources
Evaluations of demand and resources often occur below the level of awareness. As such, they are very sensitive to the stimuli in the current environment, which tend to be biased more towards the demand of the task and the context surrounding it (crowds, external judgement, extra pressure). We need to place ourselves actively in this loop to ensure that the perceived demand does not artificially elevate, but also to ensure that the actual/evaluated resources are taken into account. A beautiful example of a coach taking actionable steps to dampen the level of perceived demand is from the movie Hoosiers. In this clip, you can watch the awestruck team members go through this exact process, from picking their jaws up off the floor at the site of the arena where they’d be playing, to laughing and relaxing when the measurements that actually matter were taken.
The goal of this exercise is to observe, not perceive. Break a seemingly insurmountable challenge down into its constituent pieces, and analyze them at face value. Doing this allows you to then make much more favorable comparisons with your set of resources for tackling those pieces, and gives you something concrete to focus on rather than becoming overwhelmed with an intimidating environment.
Change your body, change your mind
The theory of embodied cognition is that there are many aspects of human cognition that are built around, and require, a physical body. Without a concrete ‘self’ in the picture, constructing a meaningful world model becomes impossible. While this might sound like useless information, there are again some very easy, concrete steps that we can take to utilize this information and increase our perceived level of resources.
Amy Cuddy does a phenomenal job of explaining this connection in her famous TED talk, ‘Your body language shapes who you are’. In her talk, she discusses how not only does our body language impact how others think and feel about us, but also how we think and feel about ourselves. Consciously controlling body posture and facial expressions for a short time period (2min) led to statistically significant changes in testosterone and cortisol levels. Basically, if you adopt a posture and expression that signify power and confidence, you become more confident and more equipped to tackle a challenge as a result.
There is also support for actively vocalizing positive emotions. Simply saying out loud ‘I am excited for this challenge’, or ‘I am ready for this and will succeed’ have a dramatic effect on not only reported emotional states, but also on performance metrics. Also, creating positive visualizations of the task and desired result is an excellent way to convince your mind of the potential of succeeding.
Simplify through practice
Another great resource on this topic is Sian Beilock, author of both ‘How the Body Knows its Mind’ and ‘Choke’. Sian speaks about the value of trusting ourselves in pressure situations, rather than trying to overanalyze things. Instead of overthinking our approach, we should simplify our thought process and focus only on simple cues that allow our well-practiced and developed skills to shine. This begins by finding a simple routine and/or mantra that is effective in practice that you can then apply on the big stage to build continuity between the two experiences.
And while we will never be able to fully replicate a game-day situation in practice, and all the unique stressors that go along with it, we can still exploit our amazing ability to adapt to similar yet smaller stressors in our practice sessions. Add variety, add unexpected circumstances, recruit unknown observers, raise the stakes with some fun wagers. These small doses of pressure situations help us build our experience set of dealing with stress, and build our sense of self-efficacy in these situations, which we can then use on the big stage.
It’s in our nature to perceive pressure situations conservatively, often overestimating the demand and underestimating our own resources, perhaps as an inherited survival mechanism that serves to caution against engaging a threat if there was a chance of failure. Building an awareness of this tendency, and tools that we can use to bypass it, can help us overcome performance anxiety and instead of choking on game day, realize our full potential. In a future article, I want to talk more in depth about the potential impact (both positive and negative), that can come from the sort of emotional re-framing that I suggest here, and how a journey towards higher levels of emotional granularity can be a simultaneously enlightening and painful experience.