Why Olympic Athletes Shouldn’t Try to Calm Down Before a Big Moment

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Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos

Wild hypothetical: You’re a 23-year-old Olympic sprinter and you’ve reached the championship heat of the 100-meter event. The gun will go off in five minutes. Given the nature of your sport — the vagaries of injuries and bad luck in qualifying events and all the other stuff you can’t control — you know that there’s a very real chance this will be your one and only chance to take home an Olympic medal. Thousands of hours of preparation stretching back to when you first called yourself a runner at age 8 are going to come down to a 10-second blur. The stakes couldn’t be higher — in all likelihood they won’t be higher for any other 10-second span of your life.

How do you handle the pressure?

One easy, common answer, derived from a great deal of folk wisdom and coaching advice, is to stay calm: take deep breaths, don’t overthink the stakes. Narrow your focus to only the task at hand. Try not to be so damn anxious.

What’s interesting, though, is that a burgeoning scientific literature suggests that, when it comes to high-pressure, high-stakes task, trying to stay calm probably isn’t the best approach. In fact, it’s more likely to trip you up than to help you. It’s better, this research argues, to embrace your anxiety, but to reframe how to look at it — to take it as a sign that your body is getting ready to help you perform at the highest level. Now, there is a kernel of truth to the idea that anxiety can be harmful: If you’re extremely anxious, you probably won’t perform at a high level. But experts who study the psychology of performance under stress now believe that the goal shouldn’t be to get rid of your anxiety altogether, but rather to get it to a moderate level, and to then use it to your advantage.

To understand why this works, and how to do it, we need to take a quick tour of the idea of so-called “mindset interventions.” This is a subfield of psychology concerned, at its core, with how people respond to stress.

Stress comes in a million different varieties, as any living human being can attest: It ranges from the low-grade annoyance of riding a crowded subway on your morning commute to the seemingly bottomless grief experienced upon the loss of a loved one. What mindset intervention research seems to find, over and over and over, is that contrary to the popular idea that stress is always bad and harmful (in the worst cases, deadly even), there’s a vitally important middle step between experiencing stress and responding to it: how you expect to respond to it. Your mindset with regard to stress is a strikingly powerful predictor of what stress will do to you, in other words.

One common form of stress, of course, is what we feel when we’re facing some sort of big challenge. And researchers have repeatedly found that when they expose experimental subjects to brief, simple interventions designed to get them to look at this stress in a new way, they perform better. For example, in a 2013 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School found, in four studies “involving karaoke singing, public speaking, and math performance,” that “reappraising anxiety as excitement [emphasis hers]” led to better performance.

These interventions were strikingly straightforward. Take the singing experiment, in which a bunch of college students had to use a Nintendo Wii karaoke game to briefly sing in front of a bunch of other college students (don’t worry, they got paid a little, and even got small bonuses for better performance). Before they began crooning the first few bars of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” by Journey, they were randomly assigned to make a simple, randomly assigned statement. Among other possibilities, some said “I am excited,” and others said “I am anxious.”

As measured by the Wii’s accuracy score, those who said they were excited performed far better (80.52 percent) than those in the “anxious” (52.98 percent) condition — a difference that Brooks, remarkably, thinks is only attributable to that simple, three-word sentence. Or it sounds remarkable until you read some of the other mindset-intervention literature. It sounds almost like witchcraft, but experiments like Brooks’s stubbornly, persistently show that nudging people to either reinterpret their nervousness as excitement, or explicitly informing them about the ways that stress can lead to better performance, leads to large performance improvements.

For an example of the latter subgrenre of experiment, take a 2010 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by a team led by Jeremy P. Jamieson, then at Harvard and currently a professor at the University of Rochester. Jamieson and his colleagues asked a bunch of students preparing for the GRE to come into a lab, provide a saliva swab (to allow the researchers to measure certain physiological stress markers), and complete a practice test.

Half the group heard and read these instructions before the exam:

The goal of this research is to examine how physiological arousal during a test correlates with performance. Because it is normal for people to feel anxious during standardized tests, the saliva samples … will be analyzed for hormones that indicate your arousal level.

The other half heard read and heard this:

People think that feeling anxious while taking a standardized test will make them do poorly on the test. However, recent research suggests that arousal doesn’t hurt performance on these tests and can even help performance … people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better. This means that you shouldn’t feel concerned if you do feel anxious while taking today’s GRE test. If you find yourself feeling anxious, simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.

Coming into the experiment, there were no statistically significant differences in average SAT scores or college GPAs between the two groups, and therefore no reason to think one group would outperform the other by much. And yet the students who were told their anxiety could be helping them scored significantly better on the math section — averaging a 739, as compared to the control group’s 684, or a difference of more than 50 points out of 800. They then proceeded to score better on that section of the actual GRE, by a similar-ish margin. (The reappraisal didn’t help English scores — there were no statistically significant differences there — which the researchers took to mean that the reappraisal helped with the “active processing” required to puzzle through a math problem, but not with the “retrieval of information from long-term storage” required to get through the English sections, that students tend to be more nervous about the math section, or both.)

And those are just two of the many, many studies that have been published on this subject. What could possibly be going on here? How do these little tweaks to how people interpret stress and anxiety lead to sizable performance bumps? Different researchers examine these questions from different perspectives — Brooks deals with things more at the level zoomed-out psychological theory, for example, while Jamieson is more interested in nitty-gritty physiological explanations — but they all agree that is has something to do with the difference between being anxious about something and being excited by it. “I think moving from anxiety to excitement in particular seems like a small intervention, but it’s actually a profound mindset shift,” said Brooks. The subjective experience of the two states isn’t, at root, all that different, she explains — they both involve predictable changes to heart rate, certain hormones, and so on.

So given two people facing the exact same race, one might interpret their racing heart and sweaty palms as Oh crap — I’m screwed, while the other might interpret theirs as My body is getting ready to help me win this thing. Mindset obviously isn’t the whole story — maybe the nervous person is an Olympic sprinter and the confident one is, say, me, in which case mindset will have little impact on who wins — but all else being equal, the contestant who is excited rather than anxious will get the most out of their body during the action to follow.

There is a ton of interesting physiological research on why this is, but for practical purposes, the how is more important than the why. One way to hammer the point home is via the context of the “fight or flight” response, which most people are at least vaguely familiar with with. Jamieson emphasized that it was very much an oversimplification, but said that the difference between anxiety and excitement could be conceived of as “basically the difference between fight and flight.” Your body interprets this difference in an important way: Are the physical symptoms you’re experiencing a signal that you are getting ready to flee or potentially fight for your life, or that you are about to engage with a challenge that seems surmountable, that you’re very much prepared to face? That difference can mean the world. “Getting people from threat to challenge is the best possible thing to do, and there are really easy ways to do that,” said Jamieson. A surefire way to not do that, though, is to act as though the understandable anxiety you are facing is a foe to be vanquished rather than a resource to be harvested.

Okay, so — how do you translate all this to everyday life? In a Harvard Business Review article appropriately headlined “Stress Can Be a Good Thing If You Know How to Use It,” Alia Crum, a Stanford psychologist and leading mindset-intervention researcher, and her father, Thomas Crum, who has taught meditation, martial arts, and leadership seminars, lay out at three-step process they say could be useful for anyone dealing with stress and anxiety.

1. See it. This entails simply recognizing that you are feeling anxious, and naming the source of your anxiety it a clear, explicit way. As the Crums put it, “[Y]ou might simply say to yourself: ‘I’m stressed about my son failing school.’ … Or ‘I’m stressed about my husband’s recent health diagnosis.’” For the sprinter, it could be something as simple as: “I’m nervous because this is a really important race.”

2. Own it. “The key to ‘owning’ your stress is to recognize that we tend to stress more, and more intensely, about things that matter to us,” write the Crums. You are stressed-out because the thing in question matters to you, or because it is somehow connected to something that does, by definition. This seems to have the effect of shifting people from pondering failure to reflecting on how a given source of stress matters to them, and what success might mean. For the sprinter, again, this is easy: “I’m stressed out because competing at the highest possible level is really important to me, I’ve been preparing for this race for years, and medaling in an Olympic event has always been a dream of mine.”

3. Use it. Time for some myth-busting about what stress is, and what it does to human bodies. “Contrary to what you might think,” write the Crums, “the body’s stress response was not designed to kill us. In fact, the evolutionary goal of the stress response was to help boost the body and mind into enhanced functioning, to help us grow and meet the demands we face.” Yes, in certain situations stress can be harmful, but again, as the aforementioned experiments showed: how you interpret it makes a huge difference. So now, when you’re feeling stressed, would be a good time to remember that stress brings all sorts of physiological benefits, that it releases hormones and increases the flow of blood and oxygen and does all sorts of other stuff that helps us prepare for the task ahead and perform better while it’s under way. The anxiety I’m feeling is going to help my body help me with this race, the sprinter might think to himself. It isn’t even anxiety, really — it’s excitement, anticipation at what my body can do when I train hard, which I have done, and when I push it to its limits, which I’m about to do.

None of this is particularly complicated, and it’s as useful for an office worker as it is for an Olympic sprinter. But even after you learn it, it’s easy to forget it given the chaos — and, yes, stress and anxiety — of everyday life. As with any habit, repetition matters: Make a point of reminding yourself, whenever possible, that anxiety doesn’t get to call the shots; you have the power to redefine it, to make it work for you, whether you’re getting into your stance for the race of your life or standing up to make an important presentation.