3 Words to Improve Pressure Performance (and 3 to Avoid)

pha156000069resizeOne of the most fascinating areas of science is the study of pressure performance. It’s fascinating partly because we’ve all been on both sides. We’ve all succeeded, and we’ve all choked. (Well, except for Derek Jeter.)

The question is, why? Our instincts say the answer lies in our character — with our innate cool, our grace under fire. But is that true?

A Harvard professor named Alison Wood Brooks recently gave us new insight into this mystery. She didn’t study the Super Bowl or the stock market — instead she performed an experiment using perhaps the most terrifying pressure known to humanity:

Ambush-style karaoke.

It went like this: Brooks brought a group of volunteers together, then surprised them by informing them that they would be soloing the first verse of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” A short time before they performed, subjects were told to repeat one of three phrases out loud.

1) I am calm

2) I am anxious

3) I am excited

Then Brooks used voice-recognition sofware to measure the quality of their vocal performance — pitch, volume, and rhythm. The results:

  • “I am calm” performers scored 53%
  •  “I am anxious” performers scored 69%
  • “I am excited” performers scored 81%

Here’s why: the mantras functioned as psychological framing devices. The “I am calm” group performed poorly because the words denied the reality of the situation. Their words claimed they weren’t nervous, even while every cell of their body was vibrating with nerves. The disparity created tension, so their performance suffered.

The “I am anxious” group told the truth, but it wasn’t a useful truth. The negativity hurt their performance — though it’s important to point out that they didn’t do as poorly as the “I am calm” people.

People who said “I am excited” performed better because the frame was both useful and accurate enough. They acknowledged the heightened emotion of the situation and funneled it in a positive direction. It wasn’t the truth, exactly, but it was aligned with the truth, and thus proved useful in dampening nerves and enabling better performance.

“When your heart is already racing, you can use that high arousal in a positive way by being energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate,” Brooks says. “People’s intuition is to try and calm down. You are better off running with your high arousal and channeling it in a positive direction.” (You can find out more about her study here.)

For us, I think the lessons are useful.

  • 1) Mantras are useful
  • 2) Don’t BS yourself. Embrace the excitement.
  • 3) When in doubt, be positive (duh, but still)

Anybody got any other pressure-coping methods they’d like to share? Please feel free.

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