Understanding how emotion affects performance

Charles-Barkley-1aAre you a better golfer when you are angry? Do you make terrible trading decisions when you are bored? Are you more productive when you are happy, or sad? Why do you choke under pressure when other people thrive on it?

As a performance coach, my main job is usually to help people overcome emotional barriers that are preventing them from executing their skills to the best of their ability. In poker I help people overcome tilt, which is when anger overwhelms their decision-making. In golf I help people eliminate the ‘yips’, which stops them performing under pressure. In trading I help professionals avoid forcing bad trades, which happens when they become undisciplined. I also help elite athletes and professionals overcome all sorts of issues including fear of failure, low motivation and decreased focus.

These issues all sound varied and independent of each other. However, at their core, all mental game issues affect performance in the same way, and therefore can be fixed in the same way. It all comes down to how I view emotion and how it relates to performance. Many sports psychologists treat emotion like it is the enemy, something that should be numbed. The problem with this attitude is that while you may succeed in the short term suppressing negative emotions, you will also suppress the positive emotions that help you perform in the zone.

Until you embrace emotions, you will never perform at your peak. 

The performance stress curve

Yerkes-Dodson Law is a theory that describes the relationship between all emotion and performance. Emotion is essential for performance; it’s only when there is too much (or too little) emotion that there is a problem. This is true of both positive emotions and negative emotions. Having too much confidence is a problem because it shuts down your ability to think. Being tired is a problem because you don’t have enough energy to think. Even being incredibly happy can impede your performance.

Understanding the relationship between emotion and performance, as shown by the following principle, makes fixing mental leaks easier. This law states that your performance improves as your emotions rise…but only to a certain point.

YerkesDodsonLaw

If emotion continues to rise and crosses your threshold (the top of the curve), performance starts to decline because the emotional system shuts down your ability to think. You can’t perform as well because you can’t think as well; and if you can’t think as well, you can’t access the skills you’re currently learning. This demonstrates exactly what happens when you are angry, scared or under pressure. The emotion becomes intense, and has the power to actually shut down your ability to think. The more emotion you have, the less you’ll be able to think until you can’t think at all and you’re relying on pure visceral instinct.

Excessive emotion shuts down your ability to access higher-level brain functions and you’re left with the part of your skillset that comes easily and automatically, also known as your C-game. This does not mean that you’ll automatically turn into a mindless zombie. There are solid parts of your game that you’ve mastered and you actually know them so well you can even rely on them when you’re emotional. For example, you could take on Roger Federer at his angriest or most depressed, and he would still perform like an elite master, because his very worst is still better than most people’s very best.

Fight or flight

tumblr_lt9ume5JhG1qm9rypo1_1280The power that your emotions have over your ability to think is something that no one has the ability to control; it’s a hardwired pattern in the brain. Many of you know it as the “fight or flight response,” and your mind is essentially malfunctioning as if it were a computer short-circuiting. This is what causes you to perform poorly when you’re angry or under pressure.

Very simply, if your emotions are too high, you make poor decisions because the brain prevents you from being able to think straight. The following also happens:

  • Your mind goes blank.
  • You miss key pieces of information.
  • You overweight the importance of some information, or fixate on irrelevant information.
  • You know the right answer, but it’s as if your head is in a fog.
  • You fall back into bad habits.

While you can’t control the fact that the emotional system shuts down your ability to think, you can control whether your emotions reach that point. In order to do that you must start trying to control your emotions well before reaching your threshold. Simply understanding the Yerkes-Dodson Law is going to help you recognize when your performance is slipping because you bored or excited, or indeed when your performance is improving because you are energized, motivated or pumped up on caffeine.

It is important to also note that the Yerkes-Dodson Law doe not look like a perfect bell curve for everyone. Some people perform well when they are angry (Michael Jordan famously would psyche himself up by getting angry at his opponents) but cannot concentrate if they are relaxed. Other people are the opposite (Lennox Lewis would relax more than psyche himself up before a fight).

Until the next time, spend the next few days looking at your own performance. Do you perform better when you are happy or angry? Do you lose concentration when you are relaxed or energized? Do you perform well under pressure, or choke? There are no right or wrong answers, the key is to understanding your own performance and it’s unique traits. Once you have a solid understanding of this, you can start to use it to fuel your performance, as well as avoid losing control of it.

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