Under Pressure: How Stress Affects Performance

Time is winding
down. Each second’s tick off the clock portends an impending doom for your
team. You’re down one point, and the ball is in your hands. Everything seems to
slow as you feel the pulsing of your heart beat harder, harder, harder in your

Next thing you know, you’re at the
free-throw line. Instead of being guarded by a
lightning-fast athlete, you have two clear, unobstructed shots. Fifteen feet
between you and instant glory.

But you step to the line, and suddenly the hoop
seems smaller and smaller. You’re playing at home, so the crowd is completely
silent. It’s time for you to shoot.

Nearly every sports fan has been in
this situation, albeit in the safety of their mental wanderings. In those
daydreams, the ball always goes through the basket—and if it doesn’t, they get
the rebound and score the game-winner anyway. 

But are these high-pressure shots
actually more difficult? Let’s be clear—when it comes to professional sports,
we’re talking about the absolute best players in the entire world. Shouldn’t
something like a free throw, which is an undefended shot, be pretty easy to
manage no matter what the situation?

As it turns out, it’s not. According
to a study done by Art Markman at the University of Texas, the NBA average from
the free-throw line drops to 72 percent when the shooter’s team is down by two points
in the final minute, compared to a 76 percent average when the game doesn’t hinge on
free throws. When players are down by one point (meaning the player could give
their team the lead with two made shots), the percentage drops to 69 percent.

This effect isn’t only seen in
basketball players. A 2012 study in Basic
and Applied Psychology
found that professional golfers, who play tournaments over
four rounds in four days, tend to shoot their worst score on the fourth and final
day, when the pressure is at its highest.

This could be because the course is typically more challenging on the final day. But the researchers also found that scores were lower the closer competitors
were to first place in the tournament. That is, the more pressure that was on
them, the worse they fared.

What causes this lack of
performance when it counts? These athletes are better than anyone in the world
at their sport, yet the pressure gets to even the very best.

There are two going theories about the cause of this pressure-related decline in performance, more commonly called
“choking,” occurs.

The first is called the “distraction theory,” which
conjectures that high-pressure situations cause external distractions, like obsessively
worrying about the outcome of a situation, that divert the performer’s
attention from the task at hand and cause poor performance. 

The second theory
is called “explicit monitoring,” which holds that the distractions are
internal—the performer worries consciously about executing a task that is
usually handled by his or her unconscious mind. 

Imagine tying your shoes in front of
10,000 people who are all judging your performance. Suddenly a mundane,
thoughtless process becomes an extremely stressful undertaking, decreasing your ability to complete the task.

While there is evidence for both of
these theories, my question is this: What about the flip-side of the coin? If
athletes are statistically likely to perform worse when the pressure is on, how
do we explain the likes of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods?

These athletes are
thought to be the most “clutch” players ever to play their respective sports.
How could they possibly perform better under
pressure, time and time again, when statistics tell us they should do worse?

There are two explanations for this

One is that the “clutch” performance ethos simply feeds off our biases
toward positive results. 

What I mean is this: For every “clutch” shot Michael
Jordan made when it counted most, there may have been two other “big” shots
that he missed. This would make his clutch success rate 33 percent, or one out of
every three, which is significantly lower than his career shooting percentage
of 49 percent. Our problem is that we simply forget all the times he wasn’t clutch
because these events aren’t nearly as emotional or exciting to remember as fans, and no one wants to harp on the times the star athlete missed and lost the

The second explanation is more
positive. Jeff Wise, the author of Extreme
Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger
, writes, “A person who is highly skilled in a particular domain can tap the
automatic part of their brain to an astonishing
degree even when under … life-or-death pressure.” Simply put, people who
excel do so because they don’t get in the way of their unconscious mind. 

also writes about Gary Klein, a psychologist who found that experienced
firefighters make instantaneous but correct decisions not by consciously
weighing the pros and cons of different actions, but by matching the situation
at hand to the most similar previous experience and remembering how the past
situation was solved. This strategy reduces the likelihood of falling victim to
explicit monitoring because it produces a decision in an incredibly short
amount of time.

I think is most important in terms of thinking about performance under pressure
is how we can apply these ideas in our daily lives. While most of us aren’t going
to be taking the game-winning shot, we are routinely faced with pressure in the
form of tests, essays, and interviews. Some people are naturally better at
handling these situations than others, but we can all work to improve.  

One way to combat stress is to allow yourself to worry about the situation but not the outcome, which allows you to focus on excelling. Another is to prepare ahead of time
in order to make quick decisions by matching the problem to previous

This preparation will also make the activity second nature, and permit you to perform perhaps the most important technique: clearing your
consciousness and allowing your unconscious mind to take care of you when the
stakes are at their highest.

Warren Szewczyk PO ’15 is a neuroscience major who also co-hosts the radio program Reality Check, which explores the intersection of science and the spirit. In his spare time, he is an avid writer of spoken-word poetry. 

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