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Want Success under Stress? Close the Gap between Practice and Competition

Practice under stress to prevent choking

Ever wonder how soldiers manage to keep their cool in dangerous battle situations? Or, how police officers are able to stay calm, cool, and collected during an intense moment on the job? As the Memorial Day Weekend approaches, it seems like a good time to reflect on how the folks who constantly put themselves in harm's way to protect us manage to succeed under stress. How do soldiers, police officers and the like perform at a high level when the pressure is on? And, can we learn something from success stories in do-or-die situations to enhance our own performance when it counts the most - whether it's on the playing field, in the classroom, or in the boardroom?

A few weeks ago, my 23-year-old cousin, Jessica Bauer, was driving to work to start her shift as an emergency medical technician (EMT) when she noticed a car on fire across the road. Jessica immediately pulled over, grabbed her fireproof EMT jacket and rushed to the flaming car. Without hesitation, Jessica pulled the driver - engulfed in flames - out of the vehicle and began patting him down with her jacket. She then dragged the driver across the grass and out of the way of the about-to-explode car. The next day, Jessica's mom scolded her daughter in that proud, but concerned, mother sort of way. What were you thinking running into a burning car like that? How could you do that? The answer is that Jessica wasn't thinking. She was doing what she was trained to do.

Emergency responders, the police, and the military rely heavily on practicing in simulated high-stress emergency situations to train their crews. This is true in other high-stakes professions as well. Commercial aviation pilots learn to deal with mechanical malfunctions in flight simulators and surgeons become accustomed to unexpected occurrences on surgical simulators. The goal is to get people accustomed to performing their best when it counts the most. Practice can make perfect. But, the closer practice mimics what you are likely to face in the real do-or-die situation, the higher the likelihood that perfection will surface when it matters. It's all about reducing the gap between training and the high-stakes event.

Take a study conducted by Dr. Raoul Oudejans, who is with the MOVE Research Institute at Vrjie University in Amsterdam. Although Raoul is interested in all kinds of high-pressure situations, he has been spending a lot of time lately working with police officers to try to enhance their performance on the job. Raoul found that training to shoot a handgun under stress helps to prevent skilled police officers from missing an important target when it counts. 1

Raoul asked a group of police officers to practice shooting first at an opponent who was putting the pressure on by actually firing back - not with real bullets, but with colored soap cartridges. Raoul then asked these same police officers to take shots at cardboard targets (the kind you see cops practicing on in the movies). After the shooting practice, Raoul split his police officers into two groups. Half of the officers practiced firing at the live opponent and the other half only practiced shooting at the cardboard targets. Then, everyone came back together and took some final shots - first at the live opponents and then at the stationary cutouts.

During the initial shooting practice, all of the officers missed more shots when firing at a live opponent compared with firing at the sedentary cardboard targets. Not so surprising. This was true after training as well, but only for those officers whose practice had been limited to the cardboard cutouts. For those officers who practiced shooting at an opponent, after training they were just as good shots when aiming at the live individuals as they were when aiming at the stationary cutouts. The opportunity to "practice under the gun" of an opponent, so to speak, really helped to hone the police officers' shots for more real-life stressful shooting situations.

You might wonder if this type of "pressure training" is really effective, given that the stress simulated in training is not nearly as overwhelming as that of a real, high-stakes performance. Just think about the pressures a police officer faces when forced to shoot at someone who is firing back with real bullets rather than soap cartridges, or the pressure a professional soccer player feels when he is about to take a decisive penalty kick in the World Cup finals, or even the pressure a high-school senior feels as she sits down to take the SAT that will make or break her Ivy League dreams. Can you even begin to mimic the types of stressors that come into play in actual high-stakes situations? The answer is, yes, because even practicing under mild levels of stress can prevent people from falling victim to the dreaded choke when high levels of stress come around.

Regardless of whether you are shooting at someone on the battle field, shooting hoops in basketball, or sitting for the SAT, you can benefit from mild stress training. When people practice in a casual environment with nothing on the line and are then put under stress to perform well (let's say because scholarships or advancement opportunities are in play or their friends and colleagues will be watching their every move), they often choke under the pressure. But if people practice shooting a gun or shooting hoops or even problem-solving on the fly with some mild stressors to begin with (say, a small amount of money for good performance or a few people watching a dress rehearsal), their performance doesn't suffer when the big pressures come around. Simulating low levels of stress helps prevent cracking under increased pressure, because people who practice this way learn to stay calm, cool, and collected in the face of whatever comes their way. Indeed, the countless hours EMT Jessica Bauer spent practicing what to do in emergency situations likely helped her react quickly and effectively when she needed to pull a man out of a burning car.

Even if you are not constantly put in the position of saving lives or performing heroic feats, you too can benefit by closing the gap between practice and high-stakes performance. Next time you are practicing your short game in golf with your buddies, for instance, put a wager on your putts. This way, when you play a full 18 holes, you are ready for that one important shot. Or, at work, when you are preparing a pitch for a client, don't rehearse alone. Instead, pull a co-worker whose opinion you value aside to hear your speech. The nervousness you feel with your co-worker staring at you might be just what allows you to shrug off the added pressure that will inevitably occur in the real do-or-die business meeting. Good luck!

1 Oudejans, R.R.D., 2008. Reality based practice under pressure improves handgun shooting performance of police officers. Ergonomics, 51, 261-273.

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