🔥 🧠 Upside Article: Strategies for Performing Under Pressure, by Len Zaichkowsky, PhD, World-Class’ Sports Biofeedback Expert

This week, we have the honor to have Len Zaichkowsky, PhD, world’s class expert in biofeedback/psychophysiology, and cognitive fitness, write another article on “Strategies for Performing Under Pressure”. Of note, Len has worked with many elite pro teams (Warriors (NBA), Penguins (NHL), Vancouver Canucks (NHL), Real Madrid, National Spanish soccer team…) over the years. Len is going to write a series of articles for the Upside on biofeedback, psychophysiology, and cognitive fitness, . Today we are publishing his second article.

Title: Strategies for Performing Under Pressure

By Len Zaichkowsky, PhD

Before becoming President of Barnard College, Dr. Siam Beilock headed up the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Chicago where she conducted groundbreaking academic research on the topic of “choking” or underperforming in sport and other professions. Her work has helped all of us better understand the cause of underperformance in pressure situations. In her writings and talks, Dr. Beilock, often makes this statement:, “People create pressure for themselves, meaning the only way we can ever experience ‘pressure’ is to create it in our own minds”. Or as Markham et al (2008) state, “It is simply a product of our imagination”. If we experience ‘pressure’ or what others might call “stress, it is because we are projecting an imaginary view of the future or perhaps a performance failure from the past.  Normally we feel pressure when we perceive there to be high expectations, either from your community/city, or in the case of the Olympic Games, the whole nation. Like pressure, expectations are also figments of our imagination.  Normally, we feel ‘pressure’ when we start imagining what might happen if we don’t achieve the outcome we desire or that we expect. “What if I don’t win?”… “What will the press say?”… “What will the coach say?”… “What will fans think?”.  In a nutshell during important contests there is much more scrutiny-from the athletes themselves, coaches, fans, family, sports reporters, etc.   And usually there are consequences associated with this high scrutiny and failed expectations.  Consequences such as loss of a championship, loss of endorsements, loss of a new contract.

In the English language, the word “Choking” is often used to describe under performance on the playing field and I don’t like it. This rather unflattering term is one I do not like, in part, because the term “choking” is a term that is often misunderstood and overused by sports writers, coaches, parents and others. It’s the easy way out to say somebody “choked”.  The opposite of “choking” is described as “clutch” much like how Bryson DeChambeau performed at the recent 2020 U.S. Open Golf Tournament (more on that later). Many times it is not an athlete “choking”, but rather, extraordinary ”clutch” performance by the opposition. Consider this baseball game scenario: the bases are loaded, team down by one run, two out in the ninth inning, a 3-2 count, and the relief pitcher strikes out the batter. Some reporters and fans will say the batter choked, when in fact it was a perfectly located “clutch” pitch that was unhittable. Another example may be a penalty shot in soccer or hockey. If the player scored, some would say the goaltender choked. But again, it may have been a perfectly located shot. In The Playmakers Advantage (2018) book, Dan Peterson and I discuss at length, choking and clutch performance. Sports writers and even academics relish writing about their “top 10” examples of choking under pressure.  A quick search of google will bring up examples from the sport of golf, where indeed performance is dictated solely by the golfer-nobody defending, etc., and is as such much easier to use the term “choke”. As Bagger Vance said in the wonderful movie, The Legend of Bagger Vance “it’s just you and the ball”. The melt down of Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters in Augusta often heads the choke list, closely followed by the unusual decision-making on the 18th hole by Jean Van de Velde, the French golfer, at the British open in 1999. Team sport examples also pop up, but as I said earlier, attribution is much more difficult in a team sport.  In American football, missing a last second field goal could be attributed to the kicker. However there are factors such as the snap from center and the hold that could influence the accuracy of the kick.

Scientists such as Beilock and Rob Gray have offered theories about how choking occurs. One position is referred to as the “distraction” theory meaning that the situational pressure distracts the athletes attention away from the execution of the skill.  For example the penalty shooter in hockey, rather than attending to executing the deke or shot he wants to execute, he is thinking about something totally different and the self-talk is usually negative. The other theory referred to as explicit monitoring suggests that the situational pressure shifts too much attention to executing the skills.  Rather than letting the well learned puck handling skills go into “automatic” drive, the hockey player thinks about every little move-like he did in youth hockey.  Sometimes we call this “paralysis by analysis”.

A related term to “choking” in sports is “The Yips”, another poorly understood term that describes a sudden loss of specific motor skills and of course performance.  The yips seem to appear out of nowhere with experienced, accomplished athletes.  Scientists are still struggling to understand what causes the yips, and perhaps with today’s brain imaging techniques we will soon have an answer, not only for causes, but effective interventions.  As with choking there are a number of reported cases of professional athletes getting the “yips” and as such their careers were cut short.  In baseball there is Pirates pitcher Steve Blass who inexplicably lost the ability to find home plate and more recently Cardinal pitcher Rick Ankiel who also lost his ability to throw strikes, but ultimately switched to the outfield and had a successful MLB career. Dodger, second baseman Steve Sax suddenly could not throw to first base, but he ultimately overcame the disorder and had a successful major league career. Yankee All-Star second baseman Chuck Knoblauch also suddenly could not throw the ball accurately. However his career came to an abrupt end.  The baseball world often refers to these throwing disorders as the “Steve Blass disease”, or “Steve Sax syndrome”. 

During my many years as a research professor at Boston University my focus was on understanding the human stress response, and ways in which athletes and others could learn to self-regulate stress reactions.  Stress is a psychophysiological phenomenon and as such it is rather complex.  Finding ways in which to communicate this complexity to coaches and athletes was always a challenge for me. However, I recently discovered a wonderful new book, “Performing Under Pressure”, authored by Dr. Ceri Evans, a New Zealander who played elite football but is now an accomplished psychiatrist and author.  Dr. Evans has served as a consulting performance psychologist with the world famous New Zealand “All Blacks” rugby team.  I would like to thanks Dr. Evans for publishing this book in part because of the way in which he simplified the rather complex developments that occur within the human body and brain during pressure packed situations. Hopefully others can use this simple model to help athletes understand what pressure is and how to manage it so that they can make “clutch” plays.

Dr. Evans and “The Red Blue Tool”

As Dr. Evans eloquently states, our brain regulates two systems that interact with each other during performance.  He cleverly labelled the right side of the human cerebral cortex, “The Red System”, that is primed for survival, keeps us safe, and runs on images and feelings.  It is very fast and is based on quick impressions.  In contrast, the “Blue System” or the left side of our brain allows us to learn and adapt, and runs on logic, words, and numbers.  It is slow and takes effort, but provides detailed analysis.  The Red, ”Feeling” system can dominate and compromise the Blue “thinking” system when we are under threat.  In other words our emotions can overpower our intellect.  The Blue System, in return, can reframe situations and calm Red reactions to some extent.  We want Red and Blue to be in the right balance for the situation.  Red is not bad and Blue is not good—we need the energy of Red and the clarity of Blue-so we are at our best when the two are balanced and we are “in the purple”. (Does this not remind you of the U.S. political system?). This simple “Red-Blue” model is intended to help athletes and other professionals see their immediate Red/Blue states of mind, understand them and make more conscious, effective choices about their cognitive, emotional, and motor responses. Coaches and players reminding each other that they are getting into the Red, or “stay in the Blue”, is such a simple yet powerful message when perceived pressure arises. Dr. Evans has a few other important thoughts about performing in pressure situations.  One is that athletes need to learn to be “Comfortable, Being Uncomfortable”.  Rehearse and train under all conceivable pressure situations.  One of his slogans is “Step back, Step up and Step in”.  Like me, he is also a huge fan of learning resonance breathing in order to help inoculate oneself against the stress response.

In his book Dr. Evans does a masterful job of describing what one’s mental state is like when it is in RED-Blue Balance and when it is NOT in balance.  I will describe each of these contexts, but also provide you with a recent example from the U.S. Open Golf Tournament that featured the final pairing of Bryson DeChambeau, and Matt Wolff on September 20, 2020. During the U.S. Open, I was writing this article and thought the Final Round had promises of showing either “Clutch” play or “Choking” behavior. Going into Sunday’s round 4 Wolff was 5 under par and leading DeChambeau by 2 strokes (3 under par) on the very difficult Winged Foot Course in Mamaroneck, N.Y.

Wolff was a young 21 year old who had won in 2020 but this was “The U.S Open”.  Would he falter or be “Clutch”? DeChambeau,was  a bit older at 27, but still a relative newcomer at Major golf events.  I was particularly interested in DeChambeau since he uses a “single plane” swing, a la the great Canadian golfer,  Moe Norman.  In fact back in 2005 I and several colleagues conducted a study contrasting the single plane swing with the traditional swing and presented it at the World Scientific Congress on Golf in St. Andrews, Scotland. Our research demonstrated the single plane swing as being more reliable (repeatable) than the “traditional” swing because there are fewer moving parts. However the single plane swing did not catch on in golf, partly because it is not an aesthetic swing, and nobody had won a major event using the swing-until of course DeChambeau.   DeChambeau has also been nicknamed the “mad scientist” for his engagement in contemporary sport science principles of biomechanics and physics, strength training, nutrition, and the mental side of golf. He has also been openly criticized  by the games greats for this  non-traditional style of play.  Would the final round be “clutch” or “choke” or something in between for DeChambeau? Using Dr. Evans Red-Blue model, I attempted in Table 1,  to do an analysis of how Bryson handled pressure.

Table 1.  Red-Blue Model adapted from Evans, “Performing Under Pressure”.

What a performance by DeChambeau! A final-round 67 gave him a 72-hole total of six-under 274, enough to beat Matthew Wolff by six strokes who finished at Even par for the tournament.  What is interesting is that none of the world’s great golfers like McIlroy, Johnson, Kuchar, Matsuyama, Reed, Casey, Finau, Thomas, Rahm, Day and others were able to score under par.  Only DeChambeau managed to break par with a lot of clutch shots. 

References

Beilock, S. (2010) Choke, New York: Free Press.

Beilock, Sian L. & R. Gray (2007) Why Do Athletes Choke Under Pressure? In G. Tenenbaum and R.C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of Sport Psychology, 425–445, N.Y. Wiley. 

Beilock, Sian L., Thomas H. Carr, Clare MacMahon, and Janet L. Starkes, (2002). “When Paying Attention Becomes Counterproductive: Impact of Divided Versus Skill-Focused Attention on Novice and Experienced Performance of Sensorimotor Skills,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 8 (1) 6–16. 

Evans, C. (2019). Performing Under Pressure.  New York: Harper/Collins

Hartley, S.R. (2012) Peak Performance Every Time, London: Routledge.

Jordet, G. (2009). When superstars flop: Public status and choking under pressure in international soccer penalty shootouts. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 21, 125-130.

Markham, K.D., Klein, W.M.P. and Suhr, J.A (2008) Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation, London: Psychology Press.

Zaichkowsky, L & Peterson, D. (2018) The Playmakers Advantage: How to raise your mental game to the next level. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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