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.

Why Life is Easier for Louis van Gaal at Man Utd

As Manchester United prepare to take on Manchester City this weekend it highlights for me one of the most interesting things about this football season from a psychological perspective (even accounting for Mario Balotelli). That is the way in which Louis van Gaal has been treated by the media and the general positive feeling that is coming from Manchester United. In particular the contrast with 12 months ago and how quickly David Moyes came under fire from the supporters, the media, and if rumours are to be believed some of his own players.

There are of course lies, damn lies and statistics. However, at this stage of the season Louis Van Gaal’s record is worse.

So despite having a much easier start to the season, and spending £150 million, there is no improvement in terms of points gained. Yet Louis Van Gaal is not criticised. With games against the top teams to come it is feasible for Manchester United’s performance to get (relative to last season) worse again.

Why the different treatment of the respective managers? There are many reasons, but for me one that stands out is that the fans, the media, and crucially the players appear to have confidence in Louis van Gaal.

That the confidence we have in our leaders influences our behaviour has been illustrated in a series of studies in exercise settings. For example, exercise participants reported greater personal confidence and attended classes more often when they had confidence in the class instructor’s ability to teach, motivate and communicate.

As renowned psychologist Albert Bandura outlined, having confidence in others is thought to be particularly important in situations where (a) the person (i.e. player) does not have the means to achieve a desired success on their own (b) if this person (i.e. manager) will help achieve success better, easier or faster, (c) the person (i.e. player) does not want direct control or responsibility over the possible outcomes. Certainly (a) and (b) apply from a footballer’s perspective as ultimately success in a team game depends on others and arguably (c) applies with some footballers as well.

This confidence in others is what psychologists call proxy-efficacy. Just like our own personal confidence (self-efficacy) we can derive confidence in others from a number of sources. Primarily, and not surprisingly, previous success is the biggest source of confidence. Whatever Louis van Gaal asks for of his players it comes from a person who has won league titles in a number of countries and the Champions League. There is confidence in the messenger, and so the message. And as such it is easier for Louis van Gaal to get buy-in for his methods. Confidence does not solely come from previous success but can also come from many other sources as well, for example other footballers who have worked with Louis van Gaal, testifying what a good manager he is, or Louis van Gaal interacting in clear, knowledgeable, ways with the players that in turn instils confidence in them.

Looking from the outside in it seems that proxy-efficacy is one reason why with similar records (and much more money spent) Louis van Gaal is seen as being at the start of an exciting journey of rebuilding, whereas David Moyes was seen as failing. It is because of this that Louis van Gaal, will be given more time to succeed. It is because of this he is more likely to succeed. Success, and crucially the opportunity to succeed, is in sport, as in life, in the eye of the beholder.