Posts Tagged ‘pressure’

A-Rod’s Record Lesson

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Thank you, Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees. You hit home (excuse the pun) the impact that focusing on results has on one’s performance.

Daniel Gilbert, in an August 4th article in the New York Times, wrote about Rodriguez’ challenge as he tried to hit his 600th homer.

“Rodriguez hit his 599th home run on July 22, bringing himself and his fans to the brink of celebration. And then, for 12 long days, he not only failed to drive the ball out of the park and into the history books, he also went hitless for 17 consecutive at-bats. This wasn’t the first time Rodriguez has stood at the precipice, and then stood there some more: after hitting his 499th home run in 2007, he came to the plate an excruciating 28 times before finally hitting his 500th.

“What made all this so frustrating for New Yorkers… was that everyone felt certain that Rodriguez would have slammed several homers in the past two weeks if only they hadn’t mattered so much. Watching him struggle to break the numerical barrier was like watching a man frozen with fear on the last step of a tall ladder: we knew, and he knew, that the last step was exactly the same as all the steps before it — so why couldn’t he just take it?

“One of the ironies of human psychology is that desperately wanting something can make attaining that thing all the more difficult. When stakes go up, performance often goes down. In one study, subjects practiced sinking a putt and got better as they went along — better, that is, until the experimenter offered them a cash reward for their next shot, at which point their performance took a nosedive.

“Golfers in another study were told either to take their time and think about their stroke or to step up and swing as quickly as possible. Although novice golfers did better when they took their time, expert golfers did worse.”

It seems almost counter-intuitive that the harder we try, the worse we get; the less we try, the better we perform. At least that’s the way it works with things we’ve done many times, things that we’re “good at.” If it’s a brand new task, then intense focus can help. But once the task has become mostly-automatic, the less thought we put in the way, the better.

Gilbert went on: “When Rodriguez stepped to the plate in recent days, he may not have heard the roar of the crowd as much as the sound of a record book opening and a pencil being sharpened. The more important his next homer became, the more he probably thought about how to hit it. The more he thought, the less he hit; the less he hit, the more he thought, and the cycle spun on

“Until Wednesday, that is, when Rodriguez finally hit his 600th home run. Forty-six agonizing at-bats separated that homer from the one before it, but the moment the ball sailed over the center field fence, Yankee fans knew that a great burden had been lifted, a great slugger had been liberated, and that a great bat would once again be free to find the ball — naturally, effortlessly, and in its own sweet time.”

What records are you facing? What record-breaking barriers are you putting in front of others? In what areas of your life can you shut your brain off and just trust your well-seasoned swing to take over again?

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Feedback Cuts Down on Choking

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

In the past, I’ve talked a lot about feedback, and how important it is in helping bring out the best performance in others. And here I go again. Why? Because it is one of, if not the most important factor in managing, coaching, parenting or just about any other area where you can help another person perform well.

Have you ever choked? I’m not talking about the type of choking where you get something stuck in your throat. No, I’m talking about the Greg Norman at the Masters golf tournament type of choking. The choking that happens when someone stands in front of a group of people and cannot speak. You know – when you’re quite capable of doing something, but for some reason you under-performed.

Most people think they choke because of the pressure, and there is some truth to that. But, from a what’s-going-on-in-your-brain perspective, that’s not the complete story. The pressure you’re under may be a factor, but it’s not the cause.

When an experienced and capable performer over-thinks, that’s when they choke. It’s when a person has a skill or technique down to the level where she no longer has to think about what she’s doing… but she does. It’s when she consciously thinks about the details of the activity, rather than just letting it happen subconsciously. In other words, rather than relying on the automatic response of the subconscious, she starts thinking through each and every minute detail of the activity, resulting in a slow and inefficient performance.

Performers often over-think and over-analyze when they don’t know how they’re doing. They actually try to give themselves feedback. Instead, if you give the feedback, the performer can stay in the automatic or implicit mode, rather than an over-thinking or explicit mode.

So, not only will providing feedback to employees, teammates, children, or whoever help them identify and then repeat good performance, it will guard against the possibility of the person choking. By giving feedback, the performer does not have to think about giving themselves the feedback.

Recall that there are two types of feedback: confirming and corrective. Confirming is the feedback you give when a person has done things well, and you want to reinforce what they did, which increases the chances that they’ll do a good job again. After all, you will tend to repeat what you’re praised or rewarded for, and simple confirming feedback will do that.

Corrective feedback is what it sounds like: correcting the performance. If someone does something wrong, then telling the person what needs to be done the next time is corrective feedback. Note that focusing the feedback, whether confirming or corrective, on the behavior, the act, the performance, and not the person, is critical. If the feedback is aimed personally, it often backfires. So, instead of telling the person that they are great, tell them what they did that was great.

As a general rule, provide the people you want to perform better at least four times as much confirming feedback as you do corrective feedback. For some reason, most people find it is easier to tell people what they’re doing wrong – providing corrective feedback – than it is to give confirming feedback. What’s odd is that most people do not have that same problem when training a dog – they have no problem rewarding the dog for good behavior – and yet they have a tough time doing the same for another human.

Think about the type of feedback you give others, and whether you could help someone who is under pressure to lessen the chances of them choking, and ultimately increase the chances that they’ll perform even better.

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