Sunday, December 17, 2017

Two Ways to Look at Stress in Competition

Two Ways to Look at Stress in Competition

Competition is naturally stressful, even for veterans. In fact, the difference between beginners and champions isn’t the amount of stress you experience, but how you deal with or use that stress. To help illustrate this we’ll examine two complimentary ways to think about stress levels in competition.

1. Arousal
The first is arousal. In this context, you can think of arousal as how worked up you are on a scale from tired to having a nervous breakdown. With a higher level of stress/anxiety/excitement/etc, your body and brain will undergo a number of changes to prime an appropriate response. The simplest illustration is the more extreme hyperarousal commonly called fight or flight. In response to an extreme challenge, you get a rush of hormones and neurotransmitters, notably cortisol and adrenaline. Among other effects, you experience tunnel vision, increased blood flow, increased metabolism and muscle tension, especially in the limbs. You are thus prepared to make a more explosive action, be it fight or flight. We experience lower intensity forms of arousal by and large every day and the physiological responses have practical utility as well as their evolutionary benefit.

Everyone has an optimal arousal level at which they perform best, i.e. peak. That zone can vary widely across activities. Humans are better at difficult tasks under higher stress, but better at easier tasks under less stress. Additionally, more physical activities generally require a higher arousal for peak performance and somewhat lower arousal for activities that require better reaction speed and concentration. Naturally this means that the sweetspot for different sports are as different as the sports themselves. The physical+mental components of sprinting is radically different from soccer is radically different from esport. On the whole, peak performance in esport is closer to moderate than to high.

That being said, the optimal arousal level also varies among individuals. This is in part due to the COMT (worrier/warrior) gene. You can think of it as if your brain is accumulating all these chemicals as a resource. People can burn through those resources quickly or slowly. Slow burners can easily get overwhelmed at a higher arousal level, while fast burners can underperform without arousal. It is worth noting here that this gene does NOT determine results. Slow burners can train their response to stress to an equal level of competence. Fast burners can train their discipline to keep up training/results in non-arousal to an equal level of competence. But it is good to know how you respond to situations so that you can respond better. Depending on the person and depending on the match, peak performance might be a matter of amping yourself up or it might be a matter of calming yourself down.

2. Fight or Flight
The second way to look at stress doubles back on fight or flight. After the initial chemical rush, hyperarousal has a cognitive component that manifests in one of two directions. You fight back or you flee. Consider for a moment how similar this binary is to the familiar dichotomy of “playing to win” vs “playing not to lose.” It’s the same process. As competitors we intuitively understand that we play much much better when we’re playing to win. The science backs us up. Would you rather take a penalty kick when the score is 2-3 and missing makes your team lose or a kick when the score is 2-2 and scoring makes your team win? You prefer the win. Everyone prefers the win. But even though the kick itself is identical, the relative success rate is 92% to 62%. That’s how big an impact this cognitive binary has.

So how do we benefit from this knowledge? The key is in our initial response to stress. Remember, hyperarousal technically precedes fight/flight. First comes the rush, then comes the binary. Studies have demonstrated that we can consciously influence that choice by choosing to interpret a challenge as an opportunity rather than as a threat. It can be as simple as taking a breath and thinking “I’m excited to be here and have this chance to perform.” Remember, excitement and anxiety are initially chemically identical! The difference is mental, and that makes it controllable.

This brings us to a truism of sorts. LEANING IN TO DIFFICULTY

If I could single out one thing from all my reading and experience with sports psychology, from MAC to Tao of Jeet Kune Do, it’d be what Josh Waitzkin calls leaning in to difficulty. In essence and in practice, sports is a sort of sandbox in which we can test our personal boundaries and learn about learning with few real consequences. You will lose fights, but you won’t die. In esport you won’t even get hurt. You can only learn. Sport is a very powerful setting in which it is explicitly clear that difficulty is the realest learning there is. In this way, personal growth is a direct result of overcoming any personal or psychological fear of difficulty and instead embracing it. We only come into being our best when we commit to the strain that equates to growth, be that sitting down on the big stage excited to play a better player or even sitting down to practice instead of goofing off. The habit, built up on the small things and culminating in the big, is transformative in itself.

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For more on the topic and related stuff, I highly recommend Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. It’s a very fun and very interesting read. If you’d prefer a summary my notes are here.

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