Pressure Good, Stress Bad

In his book Winners and How They Succeed Alastair Campbell has a section on ‘Pressure Good, Stress Bad’. In it he outlines how successful performers in whatever sphere use pressure as a force for good – a stimulus to success. One of the examples used to illustrate this was England Forward Gary Lineker who took a crucial penalty in the 1990 Football World Cup quarter-final to square the game and told himself “I am now in a position millions of mere mortals would love to be in, so I am not going to be scared, I am going to enjoy it. I can make a mark here.”

You can see the penalty, and the one he took in extra time to win the game, here:

Of course not everyone will respond in such a positive manner to the demands placed upon them. Some will, like Lineker, see the positive in even the most demanding situation. Others will not necessarily see the positives, but nor will they be cowed, and will still be able to cope and perform to, or close to, their potential.

Understanding why it is that some people respond positively, and some do not, is a fascinating topic. In our research we use the terms challenge (pressure) or threat (stress) to distinguish between those who respond positively to these clutch situations.

Interestingly we can measure whether individuals are challenged, or threatened, by an event through measuring their cardiovascular (CV) responses to the stressor. And how we respond physically, the nature of the ‘fight or flight’ response, has been consistently linked to how we then perform. In a sense our body’s response when we are placed in those crucial situations indicates if we are going to succeed or not.

In a situation where it is important for us to do well an increase in the amount of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and a decrease in the resistance in the blood vessels indicates a ‘challenge response’. The blood flows to the muscles and brain more efficiently, providing the energy, to be able to deal with the stressor. If a person has a threat response there is little change in the volume of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and there is an increase in the resistance in the blood vessels. The blood is less able to get to the muscles and brain more efficiently, reducing ability to deal with the situation.

In our research CV changes have consistently predicted performance with those showing an increase in the amount of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and a decrease in the resistance in the blood vessels performing better (e.g., Turner, Jones, Sheffield, & Cross, 2012; Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Slater, Barker, & Bell, 2013).

We think the factors that underpin the challenge response are confidence, control and an approach focus – that is a focus on what can be achieved not what might go wrong. Interestingly, in our laboratory studies we have been able to manipulate people’s responses to demanding situations by altering the instructions we give them before a task (Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Barker & Coffee, 2014). As a leader, colleague or team-mate whether it is in business, sport, or politics emphasising the qualities a person has (confidence), drawing attention to what they can control (control) and keeping a focus on what can be achieved, not what may go wrong (approach focus) can help in, Alastair’s words, feel under pressure and not stress.

What I also find really interesting is not just how people can get into a challenge state but whether that means that state really helps them maintain performance under pressure – or exceed their normal level. I am not sure if there is any conclusive data on this – but my feeling is the best performers under pressure maintain performance levels rather than exceed them. So with a tweak (complete re-write!) of the famous Navy Seal related quote “you don’t rise to the occasion, you perform to your ability”.

Alastair Campbell did a the first residency at Staffordshire University on the 16th -18th November.

Great Sporting Expectations

At what distance do professional golfers have a 50-50 chance of making a putt?

This is possibly my favourite sports question. I wonder if you can guess. I often pose this question to keen golfers, whether in a professional capacity as a consultant or if, as happened a few weeks ago, at a dinner party (I rarely get invited to dinner parties).

It is my favourite sports question because it tells us a lot about how we judge success and failure and how our expectations can motivate or hinder us.

The answer comes from a statistical analysis of putting performance on the PGA tour, and it was something I included with Dr Paul McCarthy in our book The Successful Golfer. The study by Douglas Fearing and colleagues explored putting performance on the PGA tour. Rather than relying on the freely available data on putting performance such as the number of putts per round, or birdie conversion a mathematical model was developed based on a data collection system known as ShotLink. This system captured the ball location and elevation for every putt to within 1 cm on the green. As such it provided a much more detailed analysis about putting performance because it gives a real indication of how difficult the putt was (e.g., distance, whether it was a downhill putt etc.). Data were collected from 45 PGA tour events held at 30 courses from 2003 to 2008. An enormous amount of data points were collected comprising over 2 million in total and a number of interesting analyses were conducted including who was the best putter during that time (Tiger Woods) and whether putting performance is worse in the final pressure filled fourth round for players in contention (it is not). However the one statistic that caught our eye is, for professional golfers the likelihood of making a seven foot putt is 50-50.

The best professional putters will make one out of every two putts from seven feet.

I play with amateurs who barely break 100 shots for a round who get annoyed at missing a putt from seven feet. Yet, making a putt of seven feet is a ‘coin toss’ for even the best golfers.

This example tells us a lot about how we should approach our performance. It is not particularly surprising but it does highlight the nuanced difference between what we feel must to achieve and what we are aiming for, something my colleagues Dr Martin Turner, Dr Jamie Barker and Dr Matt Slater cover in their Smarter Thinking Project. With a golfer facing a seven foot putt we would work with them to make sure they are in the best shape to make the putt, for example through a well-worked pre-putt routine that precedes a confident relaxed stroke. But thinking they ‘should’ make these putts is not helpful and not true. Even for professional golfers.

It also tells us that sport is replete with failure. Whether it is the best rugby kickers with a successful kick percentage of around 80% (they miss one in five) through to the golfers making surprisingly only half the putts from seven feet. Because of this the ability to move on from failure is key to success. As is, perhaps more importantly, the ability to focus on the process of success and not be cowed by the expectation of success – in short how we engage with our goals matters.

I am looking forward to exploring how successful people from business, sport and politics deal with success and failure – and how they engage with their goals – in more detail with Alastair Campbell who authored Winners and How They Succeed and will be doing a residency at Staffordshire University on the 16th -18th November.