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Performing under pressure

Scientists are using an online test to study how people cope with pressure in sports and everday life.


Everyone has sunken into a stress response when expected to perform, minutes before a test or while competing in a race or making a speech.

BBC Lab UK, a website operated by the British Broadcasting Corporation, is conducting a study on how people perform under pressure to see if the same psychological coping methods athletes use to control stress can be used to handle pressure felt from job interviews, tests and other situations.

Why It Matters

Handling stress is not only important for success in performance, but also for physical health. Prolonged or repetitive stress is harmful as it builds up over time, said Gloria Callard, a biology professor at Boston University.

“It’s prolonged stress, chronic stress or multiple stresses that wear out a lot of body processes that are otherwise useful in the short term,” she said.

Stress developed as a means of responding to immediate physical threats, such as running away from danger, Callard said. If a man encountered a hungry lion, the man’s blood would leave his stomach and go to his muscles because running away is more important than digestion at the time.

“Stress is a response that evolved when man was quite primitive or before there were humans, and now it is maladaptive very often,” Callard said.

Stress response never changes, even if the stimulus does, she said. In other words, if an emotional occurrence such as an upcoming exam is the cause of the stress, the body will still react in the same way it does when presented with a vicious predator.

Prolonged periods of stress can quite literally destroy the body — in extreme cases, ending in the depletion of body stores such as fats and carbohydrates, Callard said.

The BBC experiment sets out not only to test how effective these psychological skills are, but also what emotions are best for pressure performance and how controlling emotions and performance are related— a mystery in the field of psychology.

A Complicated Study

The website is designed to collect data for major, groundbreaking experiments from around the world. Launched in 2009, it started with the Brain Test Britain experiment, devised to determine if brain training actually works. Since then, a series of major experiments have collected data through BBC Lab UK using online tests and surveys.

The worldwide reach of the website allows for scientists to gather much more information from thousands more participants, resulting in more accurate data and conclusions. In return for their time, participants often receive some new information about themselves — in this case, how they handle stress when under pressure.

One experiment designed by Professor Andrew Lane of the University of Wolverhampton and Professor Peter Totterdell of the University of Sheffield, according to the BBC, involves an online test called “The Grid.”

First, participants are asked a series of questions about their personal lives, experiences with competition in games and sports, ability to control emotions and attitude toward competition, followed by a survey of how the participant feels at the moment.

Then, participants play “The Grid,” which consists of a grid of numbers from one to 35, scattered at random, in which the participant must find and click on each number in increasing numerical order. Though the first test is only a race against the clock, the following tests have a computer “opponent,” complete with a face that allows the participant to determine its mood, who is performing the same task on a similar grid. The opponent’s performance is actually based on the performance of other participants in the study.

College of Communication sophomore Hannah Landers said that the game was frightening. It was the competition and audio that she said nearly made the game overwhelming.

“The whole heartbeat sound … I was shutting down. I can’t do this,’” she said.

Following the test, participants must rate how much effort they put into a game on a scale of one to 100, followed by how strongly they feel a series of emotions ranging from anxiety to anger to happiness on a scale of one to five.

This is repeated multiple times, but participants are asked to use specific coping mechanisms for some of the latter tests, like visualization, self-talk and if-then planning.

How to Cope

Scientists and psychologists have proposed different ways to cope with stress, according to the BBC.

Visualization is the process of envisioning what one wants to happen or feel, according to Sport and Exercise Psychology: Topics in Applied Psychology. Athletes often use this technique to “intend” the result of a race, game or training session in order to embody the feeling of a successful performance and make it a reality.

Self-talk, on the other hand, refers to the constant inner conversation people have with themselves day in and day out, according to the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology. Self-talk can be either negative or positive. Negative thoughts are one of the biggest causes of pre-performance anxiety. Conversely, consistent positive self-talk has been shown to improve performance, as long as the goal is feasible.

If-then planning, according to the British Journal of Social Psychology, incorporates qualities of both visualization and self-talk, to anticipate every possible eventuality and decide a course of action based on each.

The scientists, according to the BBC, aim to find whether or not these psychological coping skills help outside the sports realm.

College of Arts and Sciences sophomore Paul Riley said he has heard of these techniques and has used all three.

Although starting out on exams might be “a little overwhelming,” he is able to handle it, he said.

“Once I get into it, it’s usually not a big deal,” he said.

Future Use and Application

The results of this experiment may be used in the future, according to the BBC, to help students to score better on tests or runners to trim full seconds off their personal records just by using psychological skills like visualization or regulating emotions.

College of Fine Arts sophomore Kathryn Potis said she would like to see the experiment results used to help students like herself.

“It could be helpful if people are having problems with stress and pressure and stuff like that,” she said. “Maybe organize something for people to teach them the proper methods … so they could learn how to not be stressed.”

COM junior Kyle Huemme, a self-declared non-stressor, said the results of the study will likely be beneficial.

“If not for me, then for my friends because I know plenty of people who are stressed,” he said.

Those interested in taking the online test and learning about their own stress response can learn more


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