The Unprepared Person’s Guide to Performance-Boosting


unpreparedIn a perfect world, we all arrive 100 percent prepared for every test, game, or performance.

In the actual world, this does not happen. In fact, we  occasionally show up fantastically unprepared. In fact, just this morning, my 15-year-old daughter had such a moment: a math test this afternoon, and she’d barely studied.

Fortunately, modern science is here to rescue us. Specifically, science that reveals the surprising power of small environmental cues to activate unconscious triggers in our brains.

There are entire books written about this subject (my favorite is Adam Alter’s wonderful Drunk Tank Pink) and I recommend checking them out. But in the meantime here are a few quick performance-enhancing tricks that you can use in a pinch. Keep in mind that the science is in its infancy, and that many of these studies have tiny sample sizes.

But that’s okay. After all, you’re desperate.

  • 1) Think about your ancestors. This experiment in Germany showed that students who spent a few minutes thinking about their forebearers (either great grandparents or more distant) improved  performance on a memory test by 30 percent over students who thought about friends or shopping. The reason? We’re social animals. Your ancestors are the reason you exist. Thinking about them seems to activate our senses of belonging, confidence, and control.
  • 2) Wear red, especially in sports. This is a weird one, but apparently true: a 2004 study of 457 Olympic wrestling matches showed that when competitors were seeded identically, the ones wearing red won 62 percent of the matches. A similar finding was done with a half-century-long study of English soccer teams (though the fact that powers Manchester United and Liverpool both wear red might have something to do with that). Scientists theorize it has to do with the fact that red holds an evolutionary link to dominance and aggression, and thus triggers unconscious feelings of dominance that improve performance.
  • 3) Spend a few minutes staring at a photo of trees, or (better) take a quick walk in the woods, which has been shown to improve performance on a memory and attention test by 20 percent.
  • 4) Listen to relaxing music, which improves the body’s ability to handle stress, lowering cortisol levels and buffering against negative emotions.
  • 5) If you’re a woman speaking to a group, look at a picture of Hillary Clinton: this experiment showed that exposure to Hillary’s face (as opposed to her husband’s face or a landscape) substantially improved the public-speaking abilities of women. (Sorry, guys — no similar effect found for men.)
  • 6) Chew gum, which improves blood flow to the brain and improved recall by 20 percent on a short test.
  • 7) Exercise, which has a similar blood-flow effect, and, in the long run, helps build a better brain.
  • 8) Take a quick nap, which has all kinds of cognitive benefits (especially if you follow the official rules of high-performance napping).

As we drove to school today, I told my daughter some of these tricks. At this exact moment she’s chewing gum, thinking about ancestors, and staring at trees (as luck would have it, she was already wearing red). I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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13 Responses to “The Unprepared Person’s Guide to Performance-Boosting”

  1. Rich Kent says:

    These are fun and some, I’m convinced, work. So does #9…
    9) Write about it! “Writing organizes and clarifies our thoughts. Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own. Writing enables us to find out what we know—and what we don’t know—about whatever we’re trying to learn.” –William Zinsser, Writing to Learn

  2. doc says:

    We are learning more and more how the brain works, how the body works, how to achieve elite status, how not to choke under pressure,etc. etc. Are we devolving toward knowing so much that we are going to suck the mystery, the unknown and the excitement out of life and sports? Would that be good or bad or neutral? Is this snow ever going to melt so I can go for beer?

  3. djcoyle says:

    No, neutral, and definitely yes.
    More seriously, Doc, those are great questions. Lots of levels here, but I love the pattern that people who pursue and develop these brain-body links themselves, through trial and error and instinct — and “own” them — seem to have an advantage over those who approach it like a science experiment. We’re seeing some of that in the Olympics, aren’t we? Shaun White falls, Sage Kotsenburg gets the gold. Okay, that’s a pretty small sample size — but do you know what I mean?

  4. djcoyle says:

    I love it, Rich — thanks. Number 9 is officially added to the list.

  5. Rich Kent says:

    Thanks, Dan. Doc, I think Gertrude Stein has your “answer”: “There ain’t no answer. There ain’t gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That’s the answer.”

  6. Walter says:

    Preparation is such an individual thing that im not so sure there is one “universal” way that it works best. Listening to relaxing music might work IF you like that sort of thing,however try convincing a high school football team that their pregame music should be Kenny G and see what happens? LOL! Many athletes are superstitious and will have the same routine that preps them for games. Perhaps that’s the key, “routine”! Something that works for an individual not something that is across the board and generic!

  7. J Mcanlis says:

    USC, FSU, and Alabama all got the Win With Red memo. Maybe Notre Dame should rethink the blue and gold (and sometimes lucky green) thing they’ve stuck with.

  8. djcoyle says:

    Agreed, Joanne! Does it count as red if the fans are blushing?

  9. #10 squeeze the left hand into a fist a few times before executing a hard skill like a free throw or penalty shot.

  10. doc says:

    Dan, I do understand what you mean. It is why in the Olympics I find myself rooting for the biggest underdog, or the one with the greatest story, or the one who overcame the biggest obstacles or trained with the least resources, regardless of which country they represent.
    Ken, thanks for the quote from Stein. I think realistically she is correct but on a more cosmic level I think there is an answer just like I think there is a “truth”. I just hope we never find them. If we all reach greatness then we would have to redefine great as average and who wants to live where everyone is average. This snow really needs to melt and probably so does my brain.

  11. Daryl says:

    This reminds me of John Medina’s NY Times Bestseller Brain Rules. Specifically rule #8 – Stressed brains don’t learn the same way and rule #10 – Vision trumps all other senses.

  12. Dennis says:

    I’ve heard “wear red” and knew about the wrestlers, know that Tiger Woods always wears it on Sundays, etc., but I don’t get it. *I* don’t (or rarely) see what I’m wearing, but my opponent in a sport does all the time. And given numbers 3 and 4 on your list, it seems that we want to be in a relatively calm state, not jacked up for “dominance and aggression”. So maybe the point of wearing red in a competitive situation is to disturb others’ equilibrium, not to improve our own performance. If so, then it shouldn’t help us at all in a test-taking situation, except in a mean-spirited way if grading is on a curve.

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