Fear and Performance

Since Friday the 13th is approaching, I thought I would write about fear.


Fear is often dreaded in performance as a killer in tough situations. Get nervous, and you may not perform at your best. But what if what we are seeing as a disadvantage could actually be an advantage?


Our fear response is rooted in our Amygdala. When we encounter a stressful situation that little guy gets excited, it sends signals to the adrenals which in turns sends hormones flooding into our body. This is a very simplified description of a complex process, but it will suffice.


A number of other things happen once adrenaline is in our system. The pre-frontal cortex (where our reasoning lies) gets less resources and we enter into a 'Flight or Fight' response. This means you are reasoning less and reacting more. By reacting, I mean following a pattern of response.


Now there are obvious disadvantages to this state, the primary one being that you are not able to reason as easily and you are at the whim of some automatic functions and responses. But what if there were some advantages to being in this state?


Tiger Woods once said "The day I'm not nervous stepping on to the tee is the day I quit" why would he invite, and apparently cultivate, what most would see as a compromised state?


I've known actors who throw up before shows to give excellent performances. Bill Russell (a baseball player) used to throw up before every game, oddly when this stopped he fell into a slump.


I would like to be clear here, I am not recommending throwing up.


What I am getting at is that when we are in a 'Flight or Flight' response we are actually at a performance state. 'Fight or Flight' is about life and death, there is no more important performance than that. The problem lies not in the state but in the pattern of response.


High pressure professionals are required to perform well under pressure, and it is under extreme pressure that they do their best work. The key is in how they practice.


Astronauts are put through rigorous simulations and training so that they can trust their trained responses to take over when they are faced with harrowing situations. Police officers, Doctors, and EMT workers also train in this way. You need to train under some pressure in a realistic situation in order to condition a proper response. Then when the situation puts you into that performance state, you can respond with your best habit... AND... this gives you room to think, because you aren't concerned about the response you are reacting at you best and thinking ahead.


You can see this with high level athletes all the time. Their bodies are reacting faster than they can think, so that they can use the resources they do have to judge the next move that they should make under the circumstances.


Maybe we should start to embrace our Fear as a friend.  Have a happy Friday the 13th!


-Mark Dawson


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