About 'Can you compete under pressure?'

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‘Can you compete under pressure?’ aims to be the biggest ever study of the psychology of pressure. By analysing the data from those who take part, the scientists who designed it aim to shine unprecedented light on what affects performance under pressure. In doing so, they’ll discover something new about pressure in sport and in everyday life.

In this article, Professor Andy Lane of the University of Wolverhampton and Professor Peter Totterdell of the University of Sheffield explain more about what the experiment will reveal. Take the test.

Critical moments – what makes the difference between success and failure?

When top sprinters line up for a major final, psychological rather than physical differences could decide who takes gold. In contests won or lost by hundredths of second, athletes need every advantage they can get.

So being able to handle pressure and manage the accompanying emotions is critical.

We all experience moments where the stakes are high and there’s a pressure to succeed.

But it’s not just top athletes who face moments of intense pressure. We all experience moments where the stakes are high and there’s a pressure to succeed.

In fact, the same psychological factors influence us whether we are giving a speech, taking a driving test, or just lining up a key shot in a casual game of pool.

So the big question is; can the psychological skills used by top sportspeople be used to prepare us for other moments of intense pressure? And if so – which ones are most effective?

These are just two of the questions we are hoping to answer with the data generated by ‘Can you compete under pressure?’

How effective are the psychological skills used by sportspeople?

Sportspeople have long known the benefits of psychological preparation. Some will talk to themselves in ways that they believe will improve performance, replacing self-doubt with positive thoughts about what they need to do in order to succeed. Others use a technique called visualisation, bringing to mind the sights, sounds and feelings of a successful performance, in order to be better prepared for the real situation. Many sportspeople plan their reactions to the many different things that might happen during competition.

Research shows that these techniques are effective for increasing focus and sustaining performance in sporting situations. There are indications that the same techniques can help in other contexts – such as in the workplace or in public performance situations.

It’s not known, what athletes should focus on when using these techniques. When tackling a high pressure task, should they focus on improving technique? Increasing effort? Or controlling arousal? And there is also considerable debate over which techniques are most effective and whether they work for some people better than others.

To answer those questions, we set out to design a game which would generate a sense of increasing pressure. Based on a well-known task that’s been used in previous sport psychology research, ‘The Grid’ is simple enough for everyone to play online, but generates the sense of pressure that we find in competitive sport and other situations. The addition of an ‘opponent’, based on real pilot performances, added another competitive element.

We then picked three types of psychological skills to test – visualisation, self-talk and ‘if-then’ planning.

‘Can you compete under pressure?’ tests which of these techniques is most effective at improving performance on ‘The Grid’ by giving participants one of the techniques and then analysing the effect it has on their performance.

Athlete Tiffany Porter on the starting blocks

Sportspeople have long known the benefits of psychological preparation.

Angry, anxious, happy, energetic – what’s the best emotion for pressure performance?

The data from the experiment will help solve another mystery in the psychology of pressure – the connection between emotions and performance.

Competition is highly emotional. Elite athletes can go from the excitement of being watched by millions, to the fear that they might fail, to the joy of winning, within minutes. They also learn that controlling their emotions is critical. Nervous excitement might enhance focus, for example; but too much can turn to anxiety, which can ‘choke’ performance.

And of course, anyone who has ever had to give a nerve-wracking speech knows that emotions can have a physical effect, such as increased breathing and heart rate, or altered perception and attention.

But do people understand which emotions will help their performance and which ones can really hinder? How much can changes in emotion affect performance?

What is emotion regulation?

In addition to understanding the connection between performance and emotional states, we’re also interested in the strategies people use to change how they are feeling.

Whether we realise it or not, we all have ways of controlling our emotions. What we’ll be measuring in this experiment, is the connection between controlling emotions and the reaction to performing poorly or very well.

Because the ability to regulate emotions has been shown to be important in areas of life from family and work relationships, to how we deal with risk; the data from ‘Can you compete under pressure?’ should have application well beyond the world of sport.

‘Can you compete under pressure?’ was designed by BBC Lab UK, with Professor Andy Lane of the University of Wolverhampton and Professor Peter Totterdell of the University of Sheffield. Professor Andy Lane is interested in how emotions and psychological techniques affect performance in high-pressure situations including sport and education. Professor Peter Totterdell is interested in emotion regulation in the workplace. They are both members of the Emotion Regulation of Others and Self (EROS) research group (http://www.erosresearch.org) which is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

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