When training fails, it’s easy to assume that it was because the learner never “got” the lesson.

In fact, it’s often the case that the learner did acquire the knowledge but can’t access it under pressure.

Consider offering learners two “emotional-regulation” strategies that will help them use what they learn when it matters most, such as during application in the real world.

The research
A growing body of research suggests emotional-regulation training can improve pressure performance. The key is for people to be aware of the effect of pressure on them, and choose a strategy to combat it. That might make the difference between a sales rep keeping a cool head during a high-pressure negotiation and backing off just to end the pressure sooner.

To learn more about what keeps performance high under pressure, researchers studied the “choking” phenomenon in sports and tried to replicate it under controlled conditions.

Then they looked at different ways to overcome the effect.

The test
Researchers had inexperienced golfers hit a golf ball into a hole on a putting mat. After establishing baselines, they added some pressure:

• They stopped the informal and friendly feel of the process and started again with new rules: namely, that each new putt would now count for something. Basically, they started keeping score.

• They turned on a video camera. Studies have shown that people feel pressure when they know they are being filmed.

• They added incentives and penalties: The golfers earned a token sum if they made the putt, but had to pay if they missed.

As expected, performance dipped when the pressure was on.

The results
Next, subjects were given various types of emotional-regulation training. Two helped restore performance to previous levels:

1. Positive reframing. People often see pressure events as negatives. They feel anxiety, and want the event to be over quickly to relieve their anxiety. When they get in a hurry, performance declines.

Performance was better when researchers framed the events as positive opportunities – for example, when they told the subjects: “Here’s an opportunity to earn money; here’s an opportunity to show what you can do on video.” The positive framing helped reduce the anxiety and performance improved.

2. Distraction. Under pressure, people tend to focus on the task at hand. Good, up to a point. But too much pressure can make people overfocus.

So subjects were asked to distract themselves during the activity itself. The researchers had them sing a song while putting, which got their putting performance back up to par.

Both techniques worked. Even better, they could be used in tandem.

Balk, Yannick A., et al. (2013). Coping under
pressure: Employing emotion regulation strategies
to enhance performance under pressure. Journal of
Sports & Exercise Psychology, 35, 408-418.

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