Sunday, October 27, 2013

Pressure, Panic and Chokes

I enjoy reading what Malcolm Gladwell writes.  The Tipping Point. Blink. Outliers. I have read all of them.

I like the way he takes a story and then provides context, insights and perspectives that are unique and interesting.  I always learn something when I read Gladwell.

That is also my goal with BeeLine.  If I can be just a fraction as successful as Gladwell is in doing it I will be very happy.

Gladwell has a new book out, David and Goliath, that is definitely on my reading list.

I have also just finished his book, What The Dog Saw, which is a compilation of articles written for The New Yorker where he has been a staff writer since 1996.  It did not disappoint.  Gladwell tackles everything from what made Ron Popeil a great pitchman to why Grey Poupon changed the mustard

For a change of pace, over the next month I thought I would write about several things I learned from Gladwell in What The Dog Saw.  After all, we can only take so much of Obamacare, the federal debt and the deficit of leadership in Washington.

Speaking of Washington, D.C., what better topic to start with from Gladwell's book than "The Art of Failure".

Human beings falter under pressure. Gladwell asks why some people choke and others panic? Are they the same thing?  How are they different?

Consider Jana Novotna in the 1993 Wimbledon final.  She was leading 4-1 in the final set and was serving at 40-30 against Steffi Graf.  She was a mere five points from winning the championship match.  She suddenly became unglued.  She double-faulted on her next serve. She missed an easy forehand. She hit an overhead straight into the next.  She continued to flail and falter and ultimately lost the final set 6-4.

Something similar happened to Greg Norman in the 1996 Masters golf tournament.  Norman shot a course-record 63 in the first round.  He teed off in the final round with a six-shot lead over the field-the biggest in Masters history.  By the end of that Sunday he had lost to Nick Faldo by five shots. Norman shot a 78 to Faldo's 67.

Both were said to have choked.  But what is choking?

Simply stated, choking occurs when you think too much.

Top athletes reach the top of the game through repetition and practice. They practice so that their movements and actions become almost automatic. Developing a skill requires "explicit learning".  You learn how to grip the club and how high to throw the ball on a serve explicitly. Practice makes it implicit so that you do these things without even thinking about it.  It becomes natural, rather than mechanical.  This is "implicit learning."

However, under conditions of stress, the explicit system can take over. You start to think about how high you are throwing the ball on the second serve.  You start thinking about your grip on the 10th tee. You lose the fluidity and start to falter.  You choke.

Choking is not limited to professional athletes in high pressure situations.

Research has found that it can also occur in other instances.

For example, an experiment at Stanford University involved a standardized test taken by both white and black students.  Before the test the students were told that the test was an important assessment of their intellectual ability.  A similar study was done with male and female students in which they were told that a test would measure their mathematical and quantitative ability. In each case, the blacks and females scored much lower than the whites and males on the tests.

However, when the same test was administered without any mention of it as an assessment tool the scores of the students were nearly identical.

What happened?  The researchers identified what they called "stereotype threat".  When blacks and females were directly confronted with a stereotype about their group (intelligence or math ability) they put pressure on themselves and their performance suffered.  In other words, they choked.

I saw the same thing with my children when they took the SAT for college.  Although they prepared diligently and took many practice exams, their scores on the actual test were lower than on the practice tests they took.

They were all great students at the top of their class.  They had an academic status within the school that they wanted to validate.  They had high expectations for themselves and knew that my wife and I had expectations for them as well.  I see now that they succumbed to their own "stereotype threat".

They were not careless, they were ultra-careful when they took the tests. They were not going to mess up.  However, this leads to second-guessing.  They got away from the intuitions that would have helped them and the quick processing that is needed on a timed-standardized test.

People who choke care about how they perform. They fail not because they did not work hard or did not take the competition or test seriously enough. They fail because they are good and care about living up to that standard.

Compare these examples to the plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy, Jr. in 1999 as he attempted to fly from Teterboro, N.J. to Martha's Vineyard.  Kennedy apparently became disoriented in the darkness and haze and began a series of curious maneuvers. He had little experience flying solely with his instruments. He ultimately lost control of his plane and he crashed in a graveyard spiral into the ocean.  He apparently was disoriented and failed to keep his wings level.

Kennedy did not crash because he choked.  He likely crashed because he panicked.  He was put in a situation that he was not prepared for.  And when that happens humans tend to stop thinking and rely on instinct.  However, in a plane with no visual cues your instincts are often wrong.

Panic occurs when we don't think enough.

That is why we have fire drills in offices and schools.  And why pilots train in simulators where they are confronted with any number of panic situations. The drills and simulations are intended to provide the experience, knowledge and thinking to use in a time of uncertainty and panic.

This is how Gladwell sums it up.

Panic, in this sense, is the opposite of choking.  Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart.

Keep these thoughts in mind if you find yourself in a pressure situation.

If you have prepared and care, think less.

If you are unprepared and panic strikes, think more.

And when your kids have to take an important test, it really is important to tell them to not worry about it if they have prepared.  You can quote BeeLine and Malcolm Gladwell if they have any doubts.

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