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The Yerkes-Dodson Curve: Performance under pressure

What does it take to perform under pressure? This week I witnessed a great example of this skill whilst attending an Olympic trials event in the UK. My client is the Team GB performance director for the sport who is focussed on delivering Olympic medal success at Rio 2016. I sat down to watch the finals event fully expecting that the Team GB athlete, a current world champion, would coast through to win the gold medal. But things did not go to plan. 

Halfway through the final, the electronic leader board was showing Team GB well down the field. I concluded the athlete was simply taking their time to warm up. Moments later, after a wayward move, Team GB was tied at the foot of the field and on the verge of a 6th place elimination. Team GB now needed to win a tie break with a competing team to avoid an ignominious exit. Team GB won the ‘tie break’ and then embarked on a relentless march up the leader board with a string of superlative performances.

With three rounds to go, Team GB had climbed to second position, yet were still so far behind the first placed team that it looked like they would have to settle for a valiant silver medal. However, as the tension hit hard, the leading team made a critical mistake in the penultimate round. This final twist let Team GB in through the back door for a crack at the gold medal. With nerves of steel the result was secured and Team GB sealed a remarkable victory.

Reflecting on the performance later, the US team coach said to me ‘It doesn’t surprise me at all. Team GB’s on home ground in an event that doesn’t really matter to them so they didn’t wake up until the tie break. Then Team GB were suddenly up against a challenge and they finally got their finger out’. Experienced and successful in this event, the Team GB athlete performed best under pressure when the heat was on. In contrast, other athletes were competing at the event for the first time. The coaching challenge with these competitors was not to put them under more pressure, but to help them calm down and relax.

This experience reminded me of the Yerkes-Dodson performance curve which we feature in the FACTS coaching model under ‘T’ for tension:-

challenging coaching tension graph

This psychological model was first discovered in 1908 and its findings have since been replicated many times. The Yerkes-Dodson curve reveals that we each have an optimum point of tension that delivers our best performance. Some of us, like the Team GB athlete in this example, thrive under pressure whereas others ‘boil over’ and performance drops. This curve can also shift as performers become established and experienced. It is more likely that the leadership challenge with younger, inexperienced performers is to keep them calm and relaxed. However, with ‘older hands’ the challenge shifts and the leader must find a way to ramp up the pressure in order for these performers to stay at the top of their game.

As leaders and coaches we must constantly assess and re-assess where our team members are placed on the Yerkes-Dodson curve. Are they too ‘laid back’ or are they ‘over-stressed’. Who needs an extra poke in the ribs? Who needs an arm round the shoulder? Who needs the loving boot? Who needs some empathy and understanding? Maybe the two most difficult challenges are recognising when a novice is ready be thrown in the deep end and recognising when a ‘star performer’ needs a wake-up call. My experience as a coach is that in both these situations leaders tend to hesitate too long before taking action. And this hesitation can be the difference between the gold medal and the silver medal, between keeping your job or losing it, between landing the deal or handing it to the competition.

There is no ‘magic bullet’ for performance under pressure; it is an individual affair. One size doesn’t fit all. Effective leaders recognise this fact and are quick to diagnose the unique Yerkes-Dodson profile of their key performers. Armed with this knowledge, they intervene quickly and precisely tailor the level of tension in each relationship. In Olympic sport as in business, it is a thin line between success and failure. Utilising the Yerkes-Dodson curve can help nudge the odds of success in our favour by matching pressure with performance.

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