Here is a thoughtful query I received from a reader of one of my recent blogs:
Dear Dr. Cohen:
I hope all is well. I am studying psychology and came across your excellent blog on Psychology Today. I'm curious, what are your thoughts, from a philosophical frame, on the etiology for why (some) athletes, musicians, and other performers "choke under pressure" or fail when it matters most? I watched a little bit of the PGA Championship a couple of weekend ago and Nick Watney - the third round leader by 3 shots - bombed out and shot an 81 even though he had been shooting in the 60s. Also, what do you think you would most want to emphasize with these performers to help them as a protective factor?
Thank you for your time and expertise. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.
Best to YOU :-)
Thank you for your excellent question. Allow me to quote the ancient Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, on this matter. Epictetus states,
When I see anyone anxious, I say, what does this man want? Unless he wanted something or other not in his own power, how could he still be anxious? A musician, for instance, feels no anxiety while he is singing by himself; but when he appears upon the stage he does, even if his voice be ever so good, or he plays ever so well. For what he wishes is not only to sing well, but likewise to gain applause. But this is not in his own power.
Accordingly, Epictetus would admonish performers, including athletes, not to try to control how others—the audience, the spectators, the coach, etc.—might react to their performance, because this is not in their control. Instead, the performer should focus on the performance, which is (largely) under one’s control.
Anxiety is a future-oriented emotion and insofar as the future is uncertain we are liable to experience some degree of anxiety about it. “What if I mess up? My career will be destroyed, and everything I’ve ever strived for will be lost!” Such catastrophic thinking typically drives intense anxiety, the sort of emotional response that leads anxiety-ridden performers to do exactly what they fear most, mess up. This is self-defeating and therefore irrational.
Many performers also suffer from perfectaholism. The performer tells herself, “I must never mess up.” I must perform perfectly, and if I do mess up then I’m worthless.” However, as Plato made plain, the world of space-time events is an imperfect one, and so it is unreasonable to demand that one never mess up and perform perfectly. This isn’t to say that one can’t shoot for perfection. The problem arises when one demands that one attain it. Learning to navigate in a metaphysical sea of life characterized by uncertainty and imperfection is one of the biggest challenges many performers face. Giving up the demand for perfection, including the demand that one be certain about the future, is an important part of such successful navigation. This also means not demanding that you control things that are not, realistically, in your power to control.
This is a philosophy by which I live. For example, as a professor, in going before a class, I am relatively undisturbed because I am prepared to mess up and don’t worry much about the possibility. I am also willing to laugh at my imperfections. At the startup of the semester, just a few days ago, I walked into a critical thinking class of fifty brand new students and attempted to remove my pen that I had clipped to my shirt. It wouldn’t budge. I had to borrow a pen from a student in order to fill out the date on the attendance roster even though there was a pen visibly hanging from my shirt. My students roared with laughter. Here, true to life, I had illustrated just what I would say in my lectures. Human beings, all of them, are imperfect. I quite enjoyed the experience and it was instructive too!
Best wishes in your studies in psychology—and I hope you will add some philosophy courses too.
Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D.
If you have any life problem questions or issues you'd like me to broach, you can post them as comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org