Why Do We Somtimes Perform Worse Under Pressure?
> 12/27/2007 12:13:03 PM

Even the most skilled athlete has experienced the humiliation of buckling under pressure. Down by 1 point in the championship game, you get the ball with five seconds left and go up for the shot. You have gotten that ball in the basket thousands of times before, but this time the pressure throws you off and you let your teammates down. Why does pressure often hinder performance, causing our bodies to betray us when the stakes are highest? There are two major hypotheses: pressure breaks concentration, or pressure actually increases focus, but on actions that would be best left on autopilot. Researchers from the School of Human Movement and Exercise Science at the University of Western Australia designed a clever experiment to test these two hypotheses.

Dr. Daniel Gucciard recruited 20 skilled golfers and challenged them to make a shot with a lot of money at stake. They attempted the shot while performing three different tasks involving repeating words mentally: three random words, three words associated with specific golfing motions, and one word that described the goal in general terms. Golfers performed worst when repeating the specific golfing terms.

Bend, swing, follow-through. Bend, swing, follow-through. Repeating words like these forced the golfers to consciously think about movements that were normally done without thought. Training allows complex movements to sink into muscle memory, internalizing the necessary steps for a swing and freeing the conscious mind for higher-level strategizing. This is not just about freeing up cognitive resources though, because when golfers had to repeat words of equal complexity but no relation to golf, such as uncommon colors, their shots actually became more accurate. Focusing on one word that was more abstract but still related to golf, such as “smooth”, allowed golfers to attain the highest accuracy. This suggests that the best strategy for athletes is to think about the general way that they want to move, while avoiding thoughts about the specific motions involved.

The advice suggested by this study may be valuable to all performers. While this study used only golfers, and thus technically only yields evidence about athletic motions, it may have unearthed the reason behind many other types of performance anxiety failures. Many human actions become awkward when too much attention is paid them; speakers can falter when they dwell on pronunciation, writers can (or should it be may, or perhaps might) become unnatural if they grow too focused on the process of putting letters on the page.

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