How to stay calm under pressure - Noa Kageyama and Pen-Pen Chen
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Being nervous is not a lot of fun, but avoiding pressure and practicing only in relaxed, comfortable environments leaves us ill-prepared for the challenges and demands of actual performance situations. Research suggests that it helps to practice performing under pressure well in advance of the big game.
For instance, in a study involving two Dutch national-level basketball teams, researchers compared a low-pressure approach to practicing free throws with a high-pressure approach, to see if the latter would help athletes improve their ability to shoot accurately under pressure. For five weeks, the players took several extra free throw attempts after warmups and after practice. One group of athletes shot them in normal practice conditions (no pressure), while the other group shot their extra free throws while competing against each other for prize money, being videotaped for analysis by an expert coach, and being observed by their coach and teammates (high pressure).
Before going through this training, both teams performed worse under pressure. However, after five weeks of pressure training, the team that practiced their free throws in anxiety-provoking conditions not only avoided choking under pressure, but actually shot better when anxious (71.3 points while calm; 78 points with anxiety). The team that practiced in relaxed conditions continued to perform worse under pressure, suggesting that simply practicing more is not the solution to choking.
Indeed, research has identified several other techniques and strategies that can be an invaluable part of “performance practice,” whether one is preparing for a piano recital, sales presentation, or golf tournament.
You’ve undoubtedly seen NBA players engage in seemingly superstitious pre-free-throw routines on TV: bouncing the ball a certain way, spinning the ball, maybe even blowing a kiss. So a pair of researchers decided to study NBA players’ pre-performance routines and see whether the consistency of these routines might have anything to do with their accuracy. To answer this question, they analyzed game film of all fourteen games of the 2006 NBA Western Conference semifinals, including those between the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers, as well as those of the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs.
They edited the game footage down to just the 15 players who shot at least 10 free throws over the course of the series and analyzed each free throw for two measures of consistency: the duration (i.e. length) of each player’s pre-performance routine and the sequence of each routine (e.g. dribbling the ball, glancing at the hoop, pausing, spinning the ball, etc.).
They found that the duration of players’ routines did not affect accuracy very much. However, the sequence did have a significant impact on performance. When players followed their regular pre-performance routine, they shot approximately 84% from the line; when they deviated from their routine, they made only 71% of their free throws.
These quirky routines can seem a little random, but it appears that there are key elements in each routine that may be critical for performing optimally. One of which is gaze control.
A group of British and Canadian researchers conducted a study of 20 first-year surgical residents who were working on their surgical knot-tying skills. Everyone received basic training on how to tie the knot, but one group received additional technical instruction, while the other group received a particular kind of gaze control training, known as “Quiet Eye.”
This involved focusing less on their hand movements and more on keeping their eyes locked on the exact placement of the knot at each stage of the procedure.
Both groups improved after the training, and both did well when calm, but when the anxiety kicked in (they were videotaped and told that their performance would not only be evaluated by their teacher, but ranked among their peers), the Quiet Eye group continued to perform at a high level. The regular training group choked, with performance regressing so much that it was as if they hadn’t received any training at all!
For more on "quiet eye," check out this video with Dr. Joan Vickers on how police are using this technique to make better decisions under pressure. Watch this video with Dr. Sam Vine on how golfers can use this technique to improve their performance on the putting green.
To learn more about choking and other ways to improve performance under pressure, Dr. Sian Beilock’s book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To is a fascinating and relevant exploration of the research on performing under pressure.
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