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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18 Responses to “3 Words to Improve Pressure Performance (and 3 to Avoid)”

  1. jan says:

    As a competitive billard player, i completely agree. Whenever i tried to calm down, i found that i choked a lot more. For a few years now, i have used the mantra “I love the pressure” with great success. Maybe now, i will alter it to “I love the excitement”. Oh, and i also think that instead of focussing on your performance, in a game (or other high-pressure situation) it helps a lot to focus on results. If i make a ball, i try not to think about how it felt. I made it, job done. If i miss, i won’t try to understand why. The fix is easy: I’ll just make it next time. Trying to understand your performance is for practice sessions. In a match, you gotta perform and not get distracted by doubt.
    The best games are those you can’t remember because you left your consciousness out of the action.
    Thank you for a great read and some prime source material. Is it OK if i translate your text into german and hand it out to students?

  2. Wes Portee says:

    Targeted visualization relates well to this study. Visualizing yourself performing the skill and doing well will spark the excitement, over the anxiety or false assurances of remaining calm. It is important to distinguish that improper visualization focuses on the result instead of the desired performance to get there.

  3. John Davis says:

    At ETM Soccer Academy (Charlottesville, Va) we encourage our athletes to “be in process” as a way of managing pressure….to not focus on outcome, and instead accept the circumstance and embrace the process of playing and competing (this would include being excited). Performance is enhanced, mistakes are managed, and the FUN of competing is collectively experienced.

  4. JM says:

    My question is which “voice recognition” software she used: Karaoke Revolution or one of the more recent games?

  5. Dr.Bob Neff says:

    I’m a Mental Trainer® so I teach athletes & performers how to do their best on the biggest stages. I like what you’ve written, and I’ve read your Talent Code book. I’d like to add to this conversation by saying that we don’t have to be a victim to our emotions. All of us can learn mental skills to control our thoughts, emotions and arousal levels. Pressure is self-induced in that it’s not what’s happening to us that causes it – it’s how we’re responding to it. I would like to see the research redone with a 4th group that has been trained mentally. One of the skills I would teach would be “minimizing.” When athletes are taught to minimize the importance of an event, they can move themselves toward the feeling of carefree. We know that’s one of the feelings athletes have when they describe their Zone experiences. So these karaoke singers would say something like, “It doesn’t matter how I do. I’ll tell people I’m not a singer, lower their expectations, ham it up and have some fun!” Try it next time you have to sing in public!

  6. Thanks for another terrific post, Dan. As the study you cite shows, positive self-talk can be a powerful tool, but not all such self-talk boosts performance.

    Another pressure-coping method that I employ applies concepts of mindfulness, which I summarized in an article during the 2012 Olympics when I was inspired by the record-breaking performance of gold-medal swimmer Dana Vollmer and her descriptions of her practice strategies.

    Titled “Excelling Under Pressure,” it’s posted on the Oxford University Press Blog. I invite you to take a look: http://blog.oup.com/2012/08/excelling-under-pressure-athlete-music/

  7. Manny Diaz says:

    Another great post, Dan! I loved your book and enjoy your posts and share many with our team.
    Manny Diaz
    University of Georgia Men’s Tennis
    NCAA Team Champions

  8. djcoyle says:

    Thanks very much, Manny — that makes my day! Congrats on all your team’s success — and if you’d like to share anything here on the blog, let me know! Best, Dan

  9. Doug Eng EdD PhD says:

    Great blog Dan!
    And tremendous comments by highly regarded individuals.
    As someone trained in sport psychology and involved in many sports (specifically tennis),
    I would say as fascinating this study was, it doesn’t equate to sport performance as the arousal
    requirements for karaoke are different. I offer a different explanation. In other words, most probably, the calm group was calm but not tense as suggested. There is no reason to suggest they were lying to themselves. To suggest one group lied isn’t logical. Karaoke also involves an emotional response which can differ from some sports. As we know, different sports require different amounts of arousal. The calm group might be done highest had the activity been ambush archery. It wasn’t. It was karaoke which requires an excited, emotional involvement, not a calm, flow-like state. So yes, the calm people weren’t ready to perform. You might find the best performers are the extroverts who are excited and want to sing. A calm person probably isn’t inspired to sing; possibly even apathetic. An anxious person is probably excited but uncertain and may think he or she might botch the words. An excited person is perfect for karaoke but not billiards, golf or archery. The exited person might also be excited if karaoke is something they excel at. If you were ask to do something you do well, you’d be excited to show off. So indicating excitement might show high self-efficacy and motivation to perform. Calmness may actually indicate unwillingness or reluctance. Or it might indicate, “I don’t really care about karaoke.” Anxiety might indicate either uncertainty of performance, regardless of whether the person is good or bad. That same excited person might do the best on the dance floor in a spontaneous display or make the most ridiculous shot in tennis or basketball. However, the calm person might sink the free throw but not run if you shout “everyone out, there’s a fire!!” That person might be more likely to wonder what’s going on. What is probably measured here is introversion/extroversion and karaoke is clearly an extroverted activity. The excitement indicated self-confidence and motivation to show off. If one asked the same people, do you want to compete? The real competitors will get excited. The people reluctant to compete will not get excited but either become anxious or reflect internally or be apathetic. What might be more interesting is asking the same questions but with different activities that require different arousal, introversion/extroversion, motivation: karaoke, walking a tightrope, shooting free throws, cliff diving or performing in standup comedy.

    On a final note, most people would probably perform better at karaoke being slightly drunk as their inhibitions are discarded. That doesn’t make them better athletes when drunk.

  10. djcoyle says:

    Hey Doug, Great comment — thanks very much for sharing your insights. I think you’re right about the extroverted/introverted divide, and that karaoke would naturally appeal to the extroverts in the bunch.
    What I find fascinating is that merely saying the phrase “I am excited” helped performance regardless of who said it — introverts and extroverts both benefited! And merely saying “I am anxious” hurt. Amazing how uttering the words can frame the event, no matter who you are!
    As for being a better athlete when drunk — you’ve clearly never seen me bowl. 😉

  11. MickRR says:

    In terms of pressure performance, I’ve found Po Bronson’s book “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing” to be a great companion book for “The Talent Code”.

    Bronson’s book is a great insight into what conditions pour rocket fuel on the initial talent ignition, and what conditions make people drop out.

  12. Craig says:

    “It’s okay to have butterflies in your stomach. The key is to make them fly in formation.” – Sam Snead

  13. Interesting post Dan and I’ve always liked excitement/scared connection.

    When I’ve working with groups or 1 to 1 I ask people what the physical feelings of fear/anxiety are if they were asked to do a presentation.

    You guys all know the usual feelings.

    Then I ask them what the physical feelings for excitement and anticipation are and they go ” increased heart rate; dry mouth; heightened awareness – Oh!”

    I suggest that they rename what they’re feeling – from fear to excitement – because the physicality is very similar.

    If course they (and you) are intelligent beings and I tell them they don’t need to rename Fear as Excitement if a bear is running at them!

    It’s all about context!

    Best regards

  14. Joel Landi says:

    Thank you Dan for the synopsis and analysis on Professor Brooks social experiment. I have a story which I would like to share with you on how I recently channeled negative emotions into positive fuel. Motorcycles have always been a passion of mine and I started competing on race tracks about three months ago. I can tell you that there is a huge disparity from riding for leisure versus competitively.

    My vocation as a performance coach has embedded me with mental tools and techniques which allows me to dictate my emotions at a high level. However, entering into a competitive environment where you max out at 220MPH can be quite unsettling.

    My technique with my clients is to identify their edge and help them breakthrough by allowing them to experience adventures that they never thought they could accomplish (http://theperformancegroup.us/). This was my personal experiential adventure..and I had to admit I was very nervous even though I was utilizing positive visualization and self talk.
    What allowed me to breakthrough was when I stopped suppressing my emotions and instead utilized them as a beacon for my competitive nature. All that was left was the joy and excitement of competition. My situation reiterates Professor Brooks message that you need to be able to convert feelings of nervousness or insecurities into positive emotions which you can feed off of.

    I converted the negative emotions into what fueled me to the finish line.

    “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
    ― Nelson Mandela

  15. Bert M says:

    Someone once asked Jack Nicklaus about how he felt on the 72nd tee of a major he was in contention to win. Nicklaus responded, “Let me ask you a question, Think of something you love to do, are you feeling nervous or excited?” The questioner said, “excited.” Jack said, “That’s the way it is for me, tournament golf is something I love, was made for and what I worked hard to prepare for. when I’m in that situation, I’m excited.”

    He must have mastered framing…

    Other quotes:
    “I like trying to win. That’s what golf is all about.”

    “See, as much as I love the game, golf was my vehicle to competition. And I love to compete.”

    “This is what I’ve worked for during the last several months. Enjoy it and finish it. Golf is supposed to be fun; it’s not supposed to be pressure and torture. The pressure is what you practice for. Prepare yourself, and think of what works for you.”

  16. djcoyle says:

    Nicklaus had it figured, didn’t he? I think he points to something bigger here. So often we connote competing with “hard work.” Like when Tiger Woods or football coaches talk about “grinding” all the time. I like what Eagles coach Chip Kelly says: “I get irked when someone tells me they’re grinding. Seriously? You’re watching video! In an air-conditioned room!” Like him, Nicklaus knows that this stuff is about love, fun, and embracing the big moments.

  17. BJ LeRoy says:

    Maybe the result is state-dependant. When they remarked “I am excited”, they put themselves in the proper emotional state to sing that type of song. We use a trick like this with volleyball athletes. In practice, we sometimes play games to 2 points, just to rotate lots of kids in. Rather than starting the game at 0-0, we start at 24-24 (playing to 25, and must win by two.) I’ve asked the players for 25 years why they play harder from 24-24. Always the same answer; they’re excited, because it’s near the end of the game. We always play well at 24-24 in a real game, because we’ve been there so many times. Thanks for some of the most relevant volleyball coaching books on the market.

  18. Hrushikesh Sable says:

    I am an undergrad student. I am currently suffering because of this performance pressure. I am good student i believe, i attend my classes regularly, study and solve my homeworks myself. Still , its not that I score good in exam. The fact is so exposed that even my one of my teachers asked me about scoring less in exams. I am a research oriented student, studying physics. I have a research article in “cryptographic methods ” in quantum mechanics. I loved this success of publishing, until few days back, when i started realizing that my main source of fear is this success of publishing.When I had exam of quantum mechanics, it started not very well, as the initial questions were tough, and this was enough to demotivate me. Pressure started building and I couldn’t do some of the obvious questions that i would have under a calm mind. I took lot of fear of public, what my fellow friends will think, that this guy has got a paper published, still he isn’t able to get good grades.
    I wasn’t realizing that I am undergoing such psychological difficulties, but i gave time to myself and I am slowly making a better leap. I know that pressure is just illusion, it doesn’t exists by itself, but because of our own thoughts, but still I am not completely free from it. Any advice will be certainly welcomed.

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