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Performing under pressure

Ratan is elated as he finally got an interview call from his dream company. He was sorely disappointed a couple of years earlier when he was bypassed by this company during campus recruitment. At last, he has got a chance to enter its hallowed portals. He is fairly confident of impressing them with his credentials. He is performing well on his current job at another reputed company and has made a number of impressive presentations. In college, he was in the top one per cent of his graduating class, besides being a quizzer. On the day of the interview, he strides in confidently wearing a full-sleeved collared shirt and tie. But the moment the interviewer starts questioning him, Ratan’s mind freezes. He is unable to articulate clearly what his current job entails. Within seconds, he is fumbling for words and knows that his chances are doomed.

Sadly, Ratan’s poor performance is not indicative of his potential. In fact, he is just the type of candidate the company is looking to hire. Psychologist Sian Beilock who has studied the phenomenon extensively, defines ‘choking’ as “sub-optimal performance” under high pressure. When a person who is capable of performing at a higher level, and has done so in the past, plummets in a stressful situation, he has fallen prey to choking. And while it can happen to any of us, we would like to minimise the chances of its occurring.

Practice pays

Beilock recommends that we not only practice for a high-stakes event, but that we also practise under stressful conditions similar to the actual event. So, instead of simply anticipating the interviewer’s questions, Ratan could have asked his friend to fire a volley of questions like a formal interview where he has to answer crisply, without hemming and hawing. Had he practised under simulated stress, Ratan would have been more prepared to face the barrage of questions. If you have to give a speech on stage, it is better to practise in front of an audience at home than to simply recite it to yourself. The closer the practice conditions are to the real event, the less likely you will choke. This is one reason why schools and colleges have mock exams before the actual Boards.

Further, it helps to anticipate potential stumbling blocks and plan how you would circumvent them so that you do not trip up during the actual event. In fact, Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps used to prepare to face any eventuality. An article in the The Telegraph in 2012 describes how Phelps trained, almost foreseeing every conceivable calamity. He used to even practise swimming blindfolded by darkening his goggles with a black marker pen. This way, he attuned his kinesthetic awareness of every stroke and had to feel the wall as opposed to seeing it. He says in the article, “It’s weird, sure, but we want to be ready for literally anything…” And Phelps’ penchant for planning for every rainy day paid rich dividends during the Beijing Olympics. During the 200 m butterfly final, his goggles began filling up with water, impairing his vision. But Phelps didn’t have reason to choke as he had practised swimming in the dark and went on to win the gold, setting a new world record.

Visualisation

Another technique used by Phelps and long advocated by sports psychologists is visualisation, where an athlete imagines a positive outcome during a high-stakes event. In fact, researchers have found that this technique can be used to quell queasiness during public speaking, an event that provokes butterflies in many people. In a study published in Communication Education, Joe Ayers and Theodore Hopf found students who had visualised themselves making a cogent speech reported lower levels of anxiety compared to those who had not done this exercise.

Many people, even those who are otherwise confident, are stymied by talking in public. However, if you have choked while addressing a gathering, do not despair. Confidence, like most other traits, can be cultivated and you might be humbled to hear of the story of a young Indian lawyer who ran out of the courtroom while arguing his first case. Recounting this traumatic experience, the lawyer later wrote, “I stood up, but my heart sank into my boots. My head was reeling and I felt as though the whole court was doing likewise. I could think of no question to ask.” This very lawyer then went on to become a master orator who inspired and mobilised millions of Indians as Mahatma Gandhi.

Finally, you must remember that you don’t have to quell your anxiety entirely. As the famous Yerkes-Dodson law states, performance actually increases with arousal up to a point. So some amount of nervousness before an exam, debate or job interview may work in your favour, as long as you don’t cross the threshold to get drowned in your worries.

The author is director, PRAYATNA. Email:arunasankara@gmail.com.

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2020 3:30:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/education/performing-under-pressure/article6158076.ece

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