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Pressure Good, Stress Bad

Written by Accredited Sports Professionals   Posted in:Theory   January 8, 2016

Pressure Good, Stress Bad  article image
In his book Winners and How They Succeed Alastair Campbell has a section on ‘Pressure Good, Stress Bad’. In it he outlines how successful performers in whatever sphere use pressure as a force for good – a stimulus to success. One of the examples used to illustrate this was England Forward Gary Lineker who took a crucial penalty in the 1990 Football World Cup quarter-final to square the game and told himself “I am now in a position millions of mere mortals would love to be in, so I am not going to be scared, I am going to enjoy it. I can make a mark here.”

You can see the penalty, and the one he took in extra time to win the game, here.

Of course not everyone will respond in such a positive manner to the demands placed upon them. Some will, like Lineker, see the positive in even the most demanding situation. Others will not necessarily see the positives, but nor will they be cowed, and will still be able to cope and perform to, or close to, their potential.

Understanding why it is that some people respond positively, and some do not, is a fascinating topic. In our research we use the terms challenge (pressure) or threat (stress) to distinguish between those who respond positively to these clutch situations.

Interestingly we can measure whether individuals are challenged, or threatened, by an event through measuring their cardiovascular (CV) responses to the stressor. And how we respond physically, the nature of the ‘fight or flight’ response, has been consistently linked to how we then perform. In a sense our body’s response when we are placed in those crucial situations indicates if we are going to succeed or not.

In a situation where it is important for us to do well an increase in the amount of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and a decrease in the resistance in the blood vessels indicates a ‘challenge response’. The blood flows to the muscles and brain more efficiently, providing the energy, to be able to deal with the stressor. If a person has a threat response there is little change in the volume of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and there is an increase in the resistance in the blood vessels. The blood is less able to get to the muscles and brain more efficiently, reducing ability to deal with the situation.

In our research CV changes have consistently predicted performance with those showing an increase in the amount of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and a decrease in the resistance in the blood vessels performing better (e.g., Turner, Jones, Sheffield, & Cross, 2012; Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Slater, Barker, & Bell, 2013).

We think the factors that underpin the challenge response are confidence, control and an approach focus – that is a focus on what can be achieved not what might go wrong. Interestingly, in our laboratory studies we have been able to manipulate people’s responses to demanding situations by altering the instructions we give them before a task (Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Barker & Coffee, 2014). As a leader, colleague or team-mate whether it is in business, sport, or politics emphasising the qualities a person has (confidence), drawing attention to what they can control (control) and keeping a focus on what can be achieved, not what may go wrong (approach focus) can help in, Alastair’s words, feel under pressure and not stress.

What I also find really interesting is not just how people can get into a challenge state but whether that means that state really helps them maintain performance under pressure – or exceed their normal level. I am not sure if there is any conclusive data on this – but my feeling is the best performers under pressure maintain performance levels rather than exceed them. So with a tweak (complete re-write!) of the famous Navy Seal related quote “you don’t rise to the occasion, you perform to your ability”.

[Originally Published on 15th November, 2015 on http://blogs.staffs.ac.uk/profmarcjones/]