Yesterday, the United States and Japan met in the finals of the FIFA Women's Soccer World Cup. The U.S. had already won the World Cup two times previously - in both 1991 and 1999 - and were expected to dominate again this time around. Japan, on the other hand, had never taken home this prestigious title. In fact, the closest Japan had come to winning the World cup was a quarter final appearance in 1999.

It was an exciting game with the U.S taking the lead early in second half. However, Japan answered back. The U.S. scored again in overtime. But, again Japan fought back - finding the back of the net to tie the game two-two. Penalty shots would decide the tournament.

As in regulation play, everyone expected the U.S. to come out on top. But, that's not how things went. The U.S. missed their first three penalty shots in a row. Japan, on the other hand, converted two out of its first three. U.S star player Abby Wambach finally found the back of the net in the fourth round of the shootout. But, it was too little too late. With Japan up 2-1, they scored again and won the game.  

Everything was in place for the U.S. to dominate and most expected that they would. After all, the U.S. team was bigger and more experienced and they had never lost a match to Japan. The Japanese team, on the other hand, was still reeling from the March earthquake and tsunami that killed over 15,000 people in their country. Yet, when it came down to penalty kicks - the most pressure-filled aspect of a soccer game - the United States imploded and Japan held their cool. Why?

It's hard to come up with a single reason. And, of course, any reason is admittedly post hoc theorizing. But, try this one on for size: The  very fact that Japanese players weren't just thinking about themselves as soccer underdogs, but also as members of a nation suffering from a salient domestic tragedy, may have helped them clinch the title.

Let's take another high-pressure situation, a female student sitting for the quantitative section of the SAT. Research shows that when female students are asked to describe several different facets of themselves - to give a complete description of themselves as a woman, athlete, friend, family member, artist, and actor - they are less likely to screw up on a high-stakes math test than if they weren't asked to think about all their complexities. Seeing yourself from multiple perspectives, not just as a girl in a situation where women are stereotyped to fail, can help thwart the spiral of self-doubt and worries that interfere with people's ability to perform at their best.

Mapping out your multifaceted nature can work across the board, for anyone. Having an athlete spend five minutes before the big game drawing a diagram of everything that makes him who he is can help ensure that he excels under stress. Maybe he tutors underprivileged children, excels in school, and can eat more hot dogs than any of his friends in a single sitting. The mere act of realizing you aren't just defined by one dimension - your SAT score or your ability to make a penalty shot - can be enough to help curtail those worries and negative thoughts that sometimes interfere with your ability to perform at your best. In essence, thinking about yourself from multiple perspectives can help relieve some pressure that you feel to excel in one area of your life.

When the U.S. team stepped onto the field yesterday, they likely didn't have to think about much other than the fact that they were soccer players on the pitch to win the game. The Japanese team, on the other hand, had a more complex set of issues to cope with. Not only are they soccer players, they're members of a nation trying to recover from tragedy. Ironically, thinking about their multiple identities - as Japanese citizens and survivors - may have been the very thing that helped take the pressure off and allowed them to shine when it mattered most.

For more on how to succeed when the pressure is on, check out my book Choke!

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About the Author

Sian Beilock, Ph.D.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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