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The Tension Builds (Yerkes Dodson Law)

“And the tension builds” were words that came to me on Wednesday 29th March as John and I prepared to deliver a keynote address to 150 people at the NHS Coaching Summit.

“And the tension builds” are lyrics from the 1981 song Tension by Killing Joke. This is a song of 4.5 minutes of pumping rhythm which popped into my mind as we put the final touches to our presentation. I was surprised by my flash back to the Eighties, I don’t know why this song came into mind, and I was also taken by the relevance of the song, which became my internal anthem during the day.

The NHS Coaching Summit was the official launch of ‘Challenging Coaching’, and although John and I had put a lot of time into preparation and rehearsal, as the moment came nearer, I could feel the tension build.

This took me straight back to Chapter 7 of ‘Challenging Coaching’ on Tension and the Yerkes Dodson Law, also known as the Yerkes Dodson performance curve. As tension increases performance also increases to an optimal level.

yerkes dodson law

yerkes dodson performance curve

If tension continues beyond this point performance becomes sub-optimal and drops. This is an area of stress with a loss of resourcefulness. The fear of entering this area may put off some people from even starting a task as the fear of failure is too great.

However, tension is a double sided coin and a friend who can provide energy which boosts performance. This is how I felt on Wednesday; the tension built but did not overwhelm.  The keynote address went very well with great feedback and positive comments afterwards from members of the audience. However, beforehand there was the potential to become stressed, after all this was the launch of the book which was two years in the writing, and a keynote presentation in front of 150 people! If I thought about this too much I could have become overwhelmed.

On reflection there were two things which ensured that the tension stayed at the optimal level. Firstly preparation; for me the amount of preparation is correlated to confidence and when we are confident then tension is not overwhelming. Second is support; the fact that John and I presented together ensured that we supported each other through the process. We pushed each other when needed, and supported each other as required.

So to summarise, I view tension as energy, however there is the yin and yang. Don’t be afraid of tension; let it build, with a positive view of the potential. But also have a plan of how to maintain an optimal level, possibly through preparation or support, or by having an anthem to sing! This is what we learn from Mr.Yerkes and Mr.Dodson.

Click here to listen to Killing Joke on YouTube


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    1. […] diagram on tension/arousal/anxiety is from the page The Tension Builds (Yerkes Dodson Law), from the site for the book Challenging Coaching by John Blakey and Ian […]