Hilary Boden takes a look at what happens to us when the pressure mounts.

Credit to interbeat on Flickr

Watching the Olympics this summer, the range of reactions to the extraordinary pressure that British competitors faced was obvious. Some, fantastic examples being Jessica Ennis and the now-famous Mo Farrah, seemed to excel under the pressure. Others didn’t fare so well, and many speculated as to whether being the hopes of Britain was perhaps more of a burden than a benefit to them.

So then, how can pressure be so positive and so negative? Of course it’s not just the Olympians who are affected. As students, it sometimes feels as though we need “The Fear” to spur us into efficiency when we need to get an essay done. But then again, why is it that when in high stress situations, like being in front of a huge crowd or with someone that makes us nervous, people’s linguistic functions and motor control occasionally falter and fail? At some point in our lives, we’ve all experienced a sort of hiccup in mental processing: we simply choke under pressure. But is it really that simple?

Some research suggests that working under pressure is fundamentally damaging- so that’s bad news for any fellow student’s theory that “The Fear” actually helps. In a study carried out by psychology professor Joseph R. Ferrari at DePaul University in Chicago, those who procrastinated almost always performed more poorly than those who did not.

Sian Beilock, psychologist at the University of Chicago, has studied how the brain operates when people perform their best and when they are hindered. She believes that these mental glitches are entirely preventable, and are due to information overloads. When we are worried about not achieving our best this can lead to what Beilock calls ‘paralysis by analysis’. In other words, attempting to control every aspect of a situation to guarantee success ultimately leads to failure. Beilock’s investigations support this notion: “highly skilled golfers are more likely to hole a simple 3-foot putt when we give them the tools to stop analyzing their shot, to stop thinking. Highly practiced putts run better when you don’t try to control every aspect of performance.” These ‘tools’ include simple distractions like whistling “If the tasks are automatic and you have done them a thousand times in the past, a mild distraction […] can help them run off more smoothly under pressure.”[i]

Ultimately, the effects of pressure and the role psychological skills have on performance continue to be debated.  BBC Lab UK are running a study entitled ‘Can you compete under pressure’ in order to try and answer some of the most crucial questions in the area of sports psychology: if there is a positive effect, what is the measure of improvement, and which mental techniques used by sportspeople are responsible for utilizing pressure effectively?  And furthermore, how do they apply to non-sporting high pressure situations?

If you would like to participate in the study and find out more, take a look at the BBC link http://www.bbc.co.uk/labuk/articles/compete.


[i] Sian Beilock, ‘Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To’