Performance under Pressure

To excel as a competitor, a level head and near perfect reflex habits are among the most important traits to achieving peak performance in the classroom, on the field, or in the office.

Last night in the Yale Law School auditorium, successful competitive minds joined with talented public health and psychology professors for a panel on performance psychology titled “Gaining A Competitive Edge.”

Members of the panel included Israeli soccer manager Avram Grant, who led Chelsea FC to the 2008 UEFA Champions League Final, 2013 National Champion and head hockey coach of Yale Keith Allain ’80 and professor of Psychology and Master of Berkeley College Marvin Chun. Professor of Public Health and Master of Branford College Elizabeth Bradley moderated the panel.

The discussion centered on the issues essential to performance — the optimal level of anxiety and the benefits of a habitual process. All panelists agreed that the brain must operate at its highest level to succeed in athletics.

“I always think of sport and athleticism as one of the highest levels of intelligence that the brain is capable of,” Chun said. “You take rapid information and process it very quickly.”

As a result of this quick turnaround between intense sensory input and reaction, Chun emphasized the importance of the two information-processing systems: the decision-making system and the habitual system.

Panelists discussed how athletes who rely more heavily on the habitual system are prone to success while those that often question their performance may be too critical of themselves and rely too heavily on their decision-making processes. Allain reinforced the importance of habitual action. He used the example of his team’s practice habits to demonstrate the benefits of habitual action.

“The way to get consistent results is to have consistent behavior,” Allain said. “We don’t see any one game as any different from another. When we played in the regional final, that mentality helped us because I think our guys had a big game mentality for 30 games before that.”

In addition to talking about the benefits of performance psychology to the individual, Allain and Grant spoke about the psychology behind managing players to maximize the performance they see from their entire team.

Chun referenced the Yerkes-Dodson curve, which demonstrates maximum performance at some intermediate level of excitement where competitors are not too excited and not too relaxed. Grant and Allain noted that this optimal level of anxiety is different for every member of the team. In order to extract their athletes’ peak performance, the experience of the coach comes into play in pushing their athletes’ buttons at the right times.

“I think you get to know your players and build trust with your players and you gain a sense for when a player needs to be given a pat on the back or talked to sternly,” Allain said.

Once the floor was opened up to student questions, the topic of sustained focus, or maintaining focus for an extended period of time despite stressful conditions, was brought up almost instantly.

Chun, Allain and Grant all cited the most important way to avoid boredom as doing something boring — sleeping. Chun said that lack of ability to concentrate might be more related to sleep deprivation than to an individual’s short attention span. Furthermore, Chun stressed the elimination of attention hogging distractions when trying to focus such as phones, Facebook and email.

Master Bradley closed the panel by asking all three panelists what advice they would give students in any situation to increase their performance and achieve their goals. Allain told students to take a deep breath to clear their heads.

One Yale swimmer, Kendrick McDonald ’16 said that he was particularly inspired by Allain’s suggestion of how to obtain peak performance when players feel they are in a rut.

“I thought what coach Allain said was really insightful,” McDonald said. “Think about your last good performance about the environment you were in when you succeeded. It applies to me in my sport with swimming when you have a very long season and sometimes your peaks are so far apart that it’s hard to remember.”

Chun advised students to follow their teachers and coaches, citing their experience as a way to bring the best out of their students and players.

Grant listed what he said were three key traits to success: talent, passion and the mental strength to properly interpret good days, bad days and average days. Grant spent the most time discussing passion and its importance in driving competitors toward success.

“If you want to make money, you have to be thinking about money day and night,” Grant said. “If you want to win a championship, you have to be thinking about championships day and night.”

Last night’s panel took place in front of a near-capacity crowd at the Yale Law School Auditorium.

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