When the game plan goes to pot
I came across an article recently about the psychology of choking – or to put it another way - when someone loses their nerve. This is the essence of performance psychology and is widely studied in the world of sport but is relevant to so many other areas where we’re ‘performing’, such as job interviews, public speaking, or presentations. What makes our endeavours a success but equally, what can stand in our way?
Most often, the problem is not the ability – you’ve no doubt mastered the skill or technique after many many hours of practise; the problem is nerve – you’re in the moment and although you might have honed your skills and you’ve the knowledge to get through it, your mindset causes you to falter and perhaps, to put it nicely, you blow it.
We have seen examples of this in the world of sport. Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle missed their spot-kicks during the Italian World Cup in 1990, meaning England went out 4-3 on penalties, something which will no doubt be etched on their memories; and who can forget Gareth Southgate’s missed penalty at the European Championships semi-final in 1996?
Each of those footballers knew exactly what they needed to do and had done it countless times before and, they undoubtedly possessed the talent. Yet in that instant, they lost their nerve. So, why?
Cause and effect
Researchers Hill, Hanton, Fleming, and Matthews (2009), studied this phenomenon and as a result of their study, stated that choking in sport is, “a process whereby the individual perceives that their resources are insufficient to meet the demands of the situation, and concludes with a significant drop in performance – a choke.”
It is accepted generally that choking occurs at a time when an athlete is highly motivated to succeed and to experience performance failure at this time, could threaten their reputation and standing in the game; not to mention be a huge blow to the months of preparation for that pinnacle moment, plus feeling the weight of public expectation and hope on their shoulders…!
The four stages of learning are an extremely interesting model to refer to in situations such as this:
When we are learning a new skill or role, we go through the four stages of learning.
For example, learning to drive a car… When we first get in the driver’s seat, we’ve no idea what we don’t know – unconscious incompetence. We do to a certain extent as we’ve no doubt been a passenger countless times and maybe – so my brother-in-law thought – this driving malarkey looks pretty easy. Then the lesson commences, and you realise the enormity of what needs to be taken on board.
You learn all you need to know and eventually get in the groove and it’s test time. You’re now in stage 3 i.e. conscious competence. But the pinnacle, when we’re at our best, is when we’re at stage 4 – unconscious competence. We’re completely comfortable with what we’re doing but we’re not even conscious of it because we’re in the zone.
Rory McIlroy perhaps let the pressure get to him during the Masters 2011 golf tournament and then again at the 2019 Open Championship. Was it perhaps pressure-induced anxiety? Self-doubt, fear of failure or maybe a fear of being evaluated or judged by others.
It’s not the task itself; very often it’s the enormity of the moment and the pressure we place upon ourselves.
When you know something so well that it becomes second nature – so much so you don’t consciously think about what you’re doing, this is called expertise induced amnesia. Think of when a footballer scores a goal – one already hailed as in the running for goal of the season before it’s even hit the back of the net, yet when interviewed and asked to describe the process of why they took it like they did, they very often can’t remember what they did. This is because it was unconscious competence and it could be said that they have expertise induced amnesia - they didn’t even need to think about what they were doing - it was second nature. However, if you’re allowing yourself to feel the pressure in a situation, you might revert back to the conscious competence stage of learning and become more explicitly aware of what you’re doing, as opposed to implicit memory being applied – you’re consciously monitoring your actions. For someone who is highly practised in a particular skill, this will throw you off your ‘A’ Game because you are no longer in the zone; that’s when it can go very wrong.
Picture this… You’re going for a job interview, however, you’re not feeling nervous because you don’t really desperately want this position; you saw it advertised, it piqued your curiosity so you thought it worth a punt and applied. Being asked to attend an interview caught you by a surprise but you thought it good for experience, so here you are. You perform brilliantly, a personal best in fact. Juxtapose to an interview for a job you’ve been after for ages – your dream role. Your palms are sweaty, your mouth dry and you can’t even remember your own name. You still possess the same skills, knowledge and know-how so what’s different? In interview one, you’re in the zone because there are no nerves, you’re not putting pressure on yourself. The dream role interview – you ‘re desperate to succeed and therefore, are likely to be analysing everything you do; you’ve reverted back to stage 3 – conscious competence.
So, what do we do in those moments when we stand on the brink of greatness but equally, we’re teetering on the precipice of failure…
The success equation
Surprise surprise, it’s all down to mindset. If we have the skills, the knowledge and the know-how, the only thing which is stopping us being a success, is the mindset we adopt.
The success equation looks like this:
Qualifications Thinking skills
We need the 20% of the equation to open the door but the 80% is what leverages it. Some people wing it with less than the proposed 20% - they have so much self-belief and chutzpah that they go for it and fake it til they make it to a certain extent.
Our mindset is crucial when we’re facing those big moments in our lives – the speech we’re about to deliver, the conversation we’ve been putting off, the presentation to the prospective client we’ve been wanting to secure for months, the sporting achievement we so want to bag. If we go in it with the belief we have the skills, we’ve done the work and we have the utter self-belief that we’ve got this, that’s what gets us over the line.
The strategies to master the mindset
So, how do we do this? How do we get it in the back of the net, across the line and so forth?!
Ultimately, it is not the situation that is stressful. Stress does not come from the situation, it comes from how we choose to respond to it. Only you can allow the pressure to get to you, because you are applying the pressure. Nerves are good, adrenalin is good, it shows you care and want to be a success.
So, harness those butterflies, get them into formation and know that you have done the work to be able to do this.
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