My research team and I have studied this phenomenon of overattention, and we call it paralysis by analysis. In one study, we asked college soccer players to dribble a soccer ball and to pay attention to an aspect of their performance that they would not otherwise attend to.
We asked them to pay attention to what side of the foot was contacting the ball. We showed that performance was slower and more error-prone when we drew their attention to the step-by-step details of what they were doing.
When the pressure is on, we’re often concerned with performing at our best, and as a result we try and control what we’re doing to force the best performance. The end result is that we actually screw up. In basketball, the term “unconscious” is used to describe a shooter who can’t miss.
And San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan has said, “When you have to stop and think, that’s when you mess up.”
In dance, the great choreographer, George Balanchine, used to urge his dancers, “Don’t think, just do.” When the pressure’s on, when we want to put our best foot forward, somewhat ironically, we often try and control what we’re doing in a way that leads to worse performance.
So what do we do? Knowing that we have this overactive attention, how do we ensure that we perform at our best? A lot of it comes down to the prefrontal cortex, that front part of our brain that sits over our eyes and usually helps us focus in positive ways. It often gets hooked on the wrong things.
So how do we unhook it? Something as simple as singing a song, or paying attention to one’s pinky toe, as pro golfer Jack Nicklaus was rumored to do, can help us take our mind off those pesky details.
It’s also true that practicing under conditions that we’re going to perform under — closing the gap between training and competition can help us get used to that feeling of all eyes on us. This is true off the playing field as well.
Whether it’s getting ready for an exam or preparing for a big talk — one that might have a little pressure associated with it — getting used to the types of situations you’re going to perform under really matters. When you’re taking a test, close the book, practice retrieving the answer from memory under timed situations, and when you’re giving a talk, practice in front of others.
And if you can’t find anyone who will listen, practice in front of a video camera or even a mirror. The ability to get used to what it will feel like can make the difference in whether we choke or thrive.
We’ve also figured out some ways to get rid of those pesky worries and self-doubts that tend to creep up in the stressful situations.
Researchers have shown that simply jotting down your thoughts and worries before a stressful event can help to download them from mind — make them less likely to pop up in the moment. It’s kind of like when you wake up in the middle of the night and you’re really worried about what you have to do the next day, you’re trying to think about everything you have to accomplish, and you write it down and then you can go back to sleep.
Journaling, or getting those thoughts down on paper, makes it less likely they’ll pop up and distract you in the moment. The end result is that you can perform your best when it matters most.
So up until now, I’ve talked about what happens when we put limits on ourselves and some tips we can use to help perform up to our potential.
But it’s important to remember that it’s not just our own individual being that can put limits and that can perform poorly; our environment has an effect on whether we choke or thrive. Our parents, our teachers, our coaches, our bosses all influence whether or not we can put our best foot forward when it matters most.
Take math as an example. That’s right, I said it: math. Lots of people profess to choke or are anxious about doing math, whether it’s taking a test or even calculating the tip on a dinner bill as our smart friends look on. And it’s quite socially acceptable to talk about choking or performing poorly in math.
You don’t hear highly educated people walking around talking about the fact or bragging about the fact that they’re not good readers, but you hear people all the time bragging about how they’re not math people.
And unfortunately, in the U.S., this tends to be more so among girls and women than boys and men. My research team and I have tried to understand where this fear of math comes from, and we’ve actually peered inside the brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging, of people who are worried about math.
We’ve shown that math phobia correlates with a concrete visceral sensation such as pain, of which we have every right to feel anxious. In fact, when people who are worried about math are just getting ready to take a math test — they’re not even taking it, they’re just getting ready — areas of the brain known to be involved in our neural pain response are active. When we say math is painful, there’s some truth to it for some people.
But where does this math anxiety come from?
It turns out that math anxiety is contagious. When adults are worried about math, the children around them start worrying, too.
As young as first grade, when kids are in classrooms with teachers who are anxious about their own math ability, these kids learn less across the school year. And it turns out that this is more prevalent in girls than boys. At this young age, kids tend to mimic same-sex adults, and at least in the U.S., over 90% of our elementary school teachers are women.
Of course, it’s not just what happens in the classroom. Social media plays a big role here, too. It wasn’t so long ago that you could purchase a Teen Talk Barbie that when the cord was pulled, it would say things like, “Will we ever have enough clothes?” and “Math class is tough.”