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One Important Lesson From Sports Psychology: Stop Overthinking

Studies show that overthinking causes you to choke under pressure. Here's how to simplify things and get the job done.
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The following is an edited excerpt from What Business Can Learn From Sports Psychology: Ten Lessons for Peak Professional Performance from publisher Bennion Kearny.

Sport psychologists have recognized for a long time that one of the main reasons athletes choke under pressure is because they overthink skill execution. By choking, we mean that your performances take a sudden and dramatic nosedive compared to your normal functioning due to perceived pressure. In business too, overthinking is problematic. Performance is so important in that potentially career-changing interview or negotiation that many professionals take extra care to say the right things, at the right time, in the right way. Herein lies the problem. You know how to speak, and you know how to speak professionally, but when overthinking these elements you actually disrupt the mechanics of those skills. So you end up blathering and stuttering, with your voice quivering unnaturally.

 Overthinking well-rehearsed and learned skills under pressure leads to underperforming at the big event.

Professor Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago is a leading expert on this phenomenon and calls it "paralysis by analysis". Beilock's work has shown how, when under pressure, overthinking can destroy performance in tasks that would normally be quite easy. This is worrying because we spend so much time honing those presentations and pitches and it could all be undermined by being unable to get our words out or misremembering those important points. Fear not, research has also found some powerful strategies that counteract paralysis by analysis. Let's take a look.

Think Simple

Overthinking is so common because, when the going gets tough, we want to make sure we have got all of those little component parts right. When working with athletes suffering from paralysis by analysis, the aim is to help them simplify their thoughts into a single focus--moments before the execution of a skill. This single focus should be relevant to the activity being attempted. For example, a golfer may use some key 'swing thoughts' that direct the action of the swing without being too prescriptive. For example they might use the word "smooth" as they approach a drive, or "nice n easy" when putting. You can do the same with your performance activities.

So let's take a new client meeting for example. Making a good first impression is important and you can read hundreds of books about how to stand, greet, shake hands, say the right things, make eye contact, walk, smile… the list goes on. All valuable information that should be considered when approaching a client meeting. However, in that moment, as the CEO approaches you with hand out-stretched for your first meeting, can you really focus on all of that stuff and still function as a complex human being going into a complicated and pressured performance environment? Probably not. So instead, you can grab all of that important 'first impression' stuff you need to do and bundle it into a neat package and give it a label. This label should be a) meaningful to you, and b) an obvious indication as to what it's for. A useful label might be "assertive" or "confident" or could even be a word that relates to somebody who you wish to emulate or model in this situation, such as "My CEO" or "The Mayor."

Remember, this is all about making a good first impression, which in a new client meeting is largely about how you behave. Confident, composed, and assertive actions lead to confident, composed, and assertive performances, which make a good impression.

You can apply this principle to any performance situation you are faced with. Just bundle the component parts and give that package of actions and thoughts a meaningful label. Simplify the complexity of performance under pressure!

Last updated: Aug 5, 2014

DR. MARTIN TURNER AND DR. JAMIE BARKER

Drs. Martin Turner and Jamie Barker are two of the UK’s leading sport psychologists, working with elite athletes and global business organizations. They are the authors of the recently published book, What Business Can Learn From Sport Psychology: Ten Lessons for Peak Professional Performance from publisher Bennion Kearny.




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