Buzzer Beaters: Functioning Under Stress

One of my few “manly” pastimes is watching sports, especially basketball. In addition to the pure excitement of the contest, there is something about the strategy and consistency required for the game that fascinates me. More specifically, basketball is a game defined by changes in momentums and streaks. When a player gets “hot,” it often seems like they can make any shot on the floor, even though they may not have been able to knock down more than 20-30% in past attempts.

While watching, I have always asked this fundamental question: When are we at our best? How can we learn to function at our maximum potential all the time? More importantly for performers and athletes of any type, how can we function best under stress?

Of course, all these answers depend on the personality of the person involved. In basketball, you want at least a few “clutch” players on your team, those who naturally rise to the occasion when the clock is running down. In the performing arts, being naturally extroverted is a major advantage. Unfortunately though, there are a lot of introverted and easily intimidated people who have to function in stressful situations almost every day.

There’s been a lot of great research and writing done on this topic already, so I’ll only mention a few things here. First and most importantly: preparation is key. For the most part, you won’t be able to sink shots in games that you can’t make in practice. Every teacher I have talked to about performance issues has cited this as the number one ingredient to success, regardless of anything else. In fact, most would say you have to over-prepare. If you want to be 40% from 3-point range, you might have to be 60% in practice. In pressure situations, your attention is almost always divided since there’s more going on both in your head and outside. You have to be able to perform effortlessly while you deal with those influences. Also, to quote a masterclass from the great saxophonist Kenny Garrett, the practice room is where you “find your confidence,” and figure out what you can do anyways. If you know this is “your shot,” chances are you’ll make it most of the time.

After preparation, the other step to performing well is to figure out what changes when nerves run high. Of course, it would be great if we could simply learn not to feel nervous. That’s why many concert pianists say that you have to run through a piece for people about 20 times before it “feels comfortable.” By run #21, another attempt doesn’t feel like the be-all-end-all. However, there are still times for most of us when nerves are going to be there, and denying their presence only further divides your energy. “I’m not nervous, I got this…” you might say as you breathe deeply and come into the game for the first time. Devoting so much time and energy to centering yourself though, you might lose the concentration to make a heads-up play. To me, it’s fair to say that denying nervous energy leads to passive performance, which is never your best.

In stressful situations, we often feel like we’re actually confronting a mammoth like our ancient ancestors.

The sad reality is that pressure causes people to act differently than they otherwise would. In a recent convocation at Lawrence, brain scientist Sian Beilock explained that pressure situations reconfigure the pathways of the brain. Stress triggers the archaic “fight or flight” impulse of our ancestors, which often inhibits creative thinking and prevents us to draw on our knowledge. In extreme cases, it literally prevents us from using the portions of our brain that control higher intelligence. That’s why some kids are really bad test takers, even if they know all the answers in review sessions.

Luckily, there are lots of mental and physical ways to calm the body down and open up the neural pathways again. Some do yoga or tai-chi before important performances, or others eat bananas or other foods that are supposed to relax the nervous system. Last year I used a biofeedback machine to monitor my heart rate and breathing while playing repertoire on the piano. Relaxation techniques help reopen neural pathways blocked by adrenaline and other stress-induced chemicals.

Better yet though, a lot of great performers manage to channel the nervous energy into their work. When great basketball players are “feeling it,” they use adrenaline to their advantage, making athletic plays or knocking down difficult shots. That’s why some say that they perform better than they practice. It’s not a miracle; it’s just that adrenaline helps rather than hurts them. Studies have shown that sensory perception is heightened rather than depleted in high-stress situations. For performers, that means they’re usually more self-aware when they’re onstage than off. The trick is figuring out how to maintain that awareness without becoming more self-conscious. Self-consciousness usually makes us choke, but awareness only enhances performance.

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