Tom Salinsky writes...
We all have a list of non life-threatening situations in our head which generate anxiety. For you it may be public speaking, networking events, taking to the dance floor, talking to the opposite sex, talking to authority, dealing with juniors or any one of a number of others. And there is another list of situations which we all carry which present no problem at all: relaxing with friends in the pub, at home with our partner in front of the television, delivering a practised speech for the hundredth time. Everyone’s lists are different but everyone recognises being in a good state, and being in a bad state. We know we can be relaxed and charming and funny and confident when unwinding with our friends in the pub. How many of us can summon up the same level of confident charm on a first date or in a job interview?
One reason for this is obvious: we tend to perform worse when the stakes are higher. This feels familiar, but it is also disappointing! Surely we should be able to do better when it really counts than when it doesn’t matter at all? We would so much like this to be true, that it has almost become a staple of escapist fiction that the hero is finally able to deliver the goods when and only when it really, really matters, but this tells us more about how stories raise the stakes and how audiences like wish-fulfilment fantasies than anything about the psychology of pressure.
Sports psychology tells us much more clearly what happens under pressure. Many sports coaches spend much of their time dealing not with training regimes to build stamina, muscle strength and reaction times and not with details of technique like backswing, timing and balance. They are much more focused on the mental aspects of the game or event. Snooker, my spectator sport of choice, is an exquisitely skilful game and at so-called “exhibition” matches which top players play on tour around the country, you can see absolutely dazzling displays of artistry and cuemanship. But it is not only the most talented players who achieve greatness in the world rankings. Jimmy White, an undoubtedly talented and flamboyant player, reached the final of the Snooker World Championships on six occasions – but never won the title. On every occasion, he played worse in the final than during his previous matches and on every occasion he lost. During the famous 1985 final between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor, two of the finest players in the country were missing balls I could have potted – and I’m a really lousy snooker player. Players like Stephen Hendry who (apparently) suffer from no nerves at all, and who can pot a ball worth £100,000 with the same ease that they pot a ball on the practice table are the ones who get long-term success.
A crucial part of developing personal effectiveness, charisma and ease in a wide variety of situations lies in learning how to get yourself into a good mental state, learning what tends to trigger this kind of anxiety and how to deal with it. Often the cost of failure is very small, but the pressure builds up in our head. We can’t do anything about high pressure situations, but if we can learn to treat them with equanimity we will do better. And if we can learn to assess the stakes a bit more accurately then this can only help. The fear of speaking in public is very common, but the cost of failure is much, much less than the cost of failing to look both ways before crossing the road. Why then are we terrified of speaking in public, but cross the road a dozen times a day without a second thought?
Isn’t it bad enough that we fall to pieces in genuinely high stakes situations, without becoming overcome with anxiety in a low stakes situation which mysteriously feels high stakes?