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“The boring coach will continually preach that mistakes must be cut to a minimum. The creative coach, on the other hand, will invite his players to go out there and make mistakes. They will achieve little unless they make mistakes.” – Carwyn James, British and Irish Lions Rugby Coach.
Over the last 10 years myself and colleagues have been researching how people respond psychologically and physically under stress and we have used this research as the basis for our approach to working with the leaders of high-performance teams. We have explored the subtle physiological nuances that indicate whether a person is challenged or threatened under pressure, how the priming we can give our team-members can change these responses, and more broadly how the culture we create can help inoculate against negative effects of pressure.
Pressure is not bad. Neither are strong emotional responses to pressure necessarily bad. Let’s take for example how Sir Chris Hoy reported feeling before his first gold medal winning ride in the 2004 Athens Olympics
“Here, I was more nervous than I’ve ever been in my whole life. To see such fast times, it’s very difficult to focus on your one ride. In previous championships I have let myself be distracted. There’s a lot of pressure going off as the last man. It’s not an enviable position to be in … As soon as any doubts came into my head, I pushed them back down. I didn’t allow myself to think negative thoughts. … I didn’t want to let myself down and all those people who’ve helped me so much along the way.”
Despite being “more nervous than he had ever been whole life” Sir Chris Hoy was able to complete the one kilometre ride in world record time – and win the gold medal. Of course not everyone is able to perform so well under pressure and in our research we are able to identify those who are ‘challenged’ by pressure and those who are ‘threatened’.
We can measure whether individuals are challenged, or threatened, through assessing cardiovascular responses. When we think about, or ready ourselves to take part in a pressure situation, we experience an increase in heart rate – the ‘fight or flight’ response. But there are subtle differences in the cardiovascular responses that indicate whether someone is responding positively – they are challenged, or whether a person is responding negatively – they are threatened. When a person feels able to cope we see a challenge response where there is an increase in the volume of blood pumped by the heart and a decrease in the resistance in the blood vessels. When a person does not feel able to cope we see a threat response where there is little change in the volume of blood pumped by the heart and there is an increase in the resistance in the blood vessels. With colleague Dr Martin Turner our research programme has identified that cardiovascular reactivity has consistently predicted performance in a range of cognitive and sporting tasks under pressure. Those people exhibiting cardiovascular responses indicating a challenge state perform better. We have also shown these pattern of responses to predict performance in elite age-group cricketers so the approach has value within elite populations.
Underpinning these responses are three resource appraisals. Not surprisingly confidence is one of them. The belief in our ability to perform well is clearly a crucial element in being able to perform under pressure. A high level of confidence is important for a challenge state. Second is a feeling of control. Believing you have control over factors that may affect performance and how you perform under pressure is important for a challenge state. Going into pressure situations focusing on factors that cannot be controlled, such as a footballer worrying about match officials, is associated with a threat state. Finally, being focused on what can be achieved – an approach focus is important. Individuals who are challenged are focused on what can be achieved while those that are threatened are focused on what might go wrong.
Leaders can prime team-members to respond positively under stress, through enhancing these psychological aspects under pressure. In our research we have been able to manipulate responses to pressure by altering task instructions. Prior to a pressure task if the instructions emphasise feelings of confidence, control and an approach focus, people respond physically with a challenge state. In one of our recent studies it was sufficient to change three sentences in a 90 second instructional set for this effect to be observed. As a leader emphasising the qualities your team has (confidence), drawing attention to what they can control (control) and keeping a focus on what can be achieved (approach focus), not what may go wrong can help develop a challenge response in the face of unexpected, potentially damaging events.
While these three resource appraisals are important displaying a challenge response can also be influenced by other factors. One of these may be the organisation, team or company for whom we work. Many of us have a strong affinity with where we work, and this is not surprising, because we have a fundamental need to belong to groups. This is illustrated in the many negative health consequences of social isolation. We do not adapt well to loneliness. Membership of groups not only provides a sense of belonging but says something about who we are – they provide us with a social identity. I am currently exploring with a colleague Joe Dixon the role that the organisations can play in helping us respond with a challenge approach under pressure. Joe works as a Club Psychologist at Stoke City Football Club and recently he interviewed 14 elite football coaches about dealing with pressure as a player and a coach and many cited social support as a key factor in helping them cope.
Having good social support though is only part of the story. I have recently been discussing this with Owen Eastwood, from the company Hoko, an organisational culture expert, who has worked with a range of organisations and sporting teams including the South African cricket team, Military Command of NATO and the Scotland Rugby Team. His approach outlines that the environment in which we work does more than provide a ready-made group of individuals with whom we can share experiences. It provides us with an identity, and a purpose, and guides our behaviours. The shared sense of purpose, identity as a group and common standards and way of doing things is what Owen calls culture. I really like Owen’s approach because he articulates a team’s identity, including its past, in such a way as to draw out its authentic behavioural traits and standards. As such it draws on something greater than the collection of individuals, who happen to be involved at a particular moment in time. It gives a sense of place to the team, based on history, and allied to a clear purpose provides a pathway to a legacy. Belonging matters in how we deal with pressure because we know individuals who feel socially isolated have higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), display lower levels of self-regulation and are more likely to perceive threats in the environment. Provided the leaders also embody the values of the group then this is also a chance to model and encourage behaviours and cultural norms. For example, displaying effort and positive communication under pressure. Leaders embodying the values of the group is an important way of driving behaviour as the desire to conform and to be part of the group are powerful motivators.
It is great to be able to have the opportunity to discuss approaches with someone who has such a track record of success as Owen and blending some of his concepts with our research findings. Our work on developing a challenge mindset and culture has, and is currently, being applied with a number of teams. For example we have a pressure testing protocol we have employed in professional cricket, professional football and with a GB squad in the lead up to Rio 2016. Specifically, we collect data on changes in cardiovascular responses from rest when athletes are presented with a pressure scenario (e.g., a young football player asked to imagine what it would be like to make a debut for the first team). Individual feedback is provided to athletes and if required, we work with the athletes to help them develop a challenge approach.
A specific illustration of our approach is the work Joe Dixon is leading with the academy at Stoke City Football Club. These include:
This work fits within the wider understanding of culture outlined in Owen Eastwood’s approach emphasising a shared sense of purpose, identity as a group and common standards. Currently the physical environment is being developed with, for example, images celebrating success connected with the overall identity of the club. Coaches are supported with ideas and feedback to help challenging players by pushing them outside of comfort zone. Parents are also part of the approach and there are education sessions for the parents of the players on how they can support the challenge culture. Ownership is important to this approach and Joe works hard to provide the space for staff to share ideas and views as to how the overall culture can be further developed.
Pressure is ever present in a high performance environment. A challenge approach to pressure is associated with greater achievement. As the quote from legendary rugby coach Carwyn James outlined at the start of the article the courage to achieve is crucial in sport. As leaders we can help ourselves, and our teams, develop a challenge mindset. The underpinning element of a challenge mindset can be built into the identity, purpose and standards of our team. As leaders, by embodying the identity, purpose and standards of our team we can help create a challenge culture.
Marc Jones. Professor of Stress and Emotion at Staffordshire University
Marc is currently a Professor of Stress and Emotion at Staffordshire University. Marc’s work is centred on understanding the causes, control and consequences of stress and emotion. Much of his work has been in sport, in particular exploring challenge and threat states in response to competition. Specifically, how individuals differ in the psycho-physiological responses to stressful situations and how these challenge and threat states relate to performance.