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Challenge or Threat?

A penalty shootout determines who advances at the end of a tied soccer match.
A penalty shootout determines who advances at the end of a tied soccer match.

Have you ever wondered what psychs players out when the game is on the line?  Yogi Berra’s famous quote, “90 percent of the game is half-mental”, rings true, especially at critical moments.  For it is when the game is on the line that a player can fall into prevention mode.  Don’t lose.  Don’t screw this up.

The paradox is that if you try NOT to make mistakes, you actually end up making more of them.  An interesting study of soccer players’ success during the penalty shootout round demonstrates this nicely.  In this round, whoever wins the shootout advances in the tournament.  Whoever doesn’t goes home.

When your team is behind by a point and it’s up to you to make a goal or go home, players on average convert on this 62% of the time. On the other hand, if the game is tied and you can win with your shot, players convert 92% of the time!  That’s a huge difference!

Cognitive researchers believe that this demonstrates the difference between the threat versus challenge mode that we take when approaching a task.  If you see we see something as a threat (If I blow this, I will incompetent, we don’t win etc…), then we try to prevent mistakes.   If we see this as a challenge (By making this goal, we win and move on!),  we tend to be looser, confident, and more effective. Who wouldn’t want the latter approach?

A situation like this though, because we are working against default modes that are wired into our brains.  We want to protect ourselves and not make mistakes.  You lose status in the group and all kinds of awful things like that. Yet it takes a systems override to take the loose aggressive approach at critical times.   How do you get there?

Here are some possible ways:

1.  You are already in the zone so you are not as deeply affected by situational variables.  You aren’t thinking in the first place.

2. You put your mind elsewhere.  Think of something pleasant but unrelated to what you are trying to accomplish. Your happy place.

3. Reframe a threat as an opportunity or challenge.   “I’m going to keep us alive in this shoot out round”  vs  “don’t blow it.”

A shift in mindset can make all the difference.  But here’s the key:  you have to practice these techniques.  Mindset is a resource best accessed if it has been exercised like a muscle in the gym.  It can be very difficult to call on something if the first time you ever tried it is in a critical situation.  You may get lucky or you may not.   That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, it just means it isn’t accessible yet.  I suspect meditation is also helpful in this situation.

Anyway, this soccer story was borrowed from the book , Top Dog The Science of Winning and Losinga book I am thoroughly enjoying at the moment.

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