Do You Prepare to Perform or Do You Perform to Prepare?



I was talking with a group of teachers about mental preparation for performance. The environment their students would eventually work in was unpredictable and arduous, a fact the teachers often would weave into their lessons. According to the teachers, this was done to motivate their students to engage in the learning process. The end-point environment was also used to justify the confronting training techniques they used, presumably to prepare their students for what was to come.


I began my talk with some brain and mind basics to help the teachers better understand how each impacted performance. That is, how the brain controls the functioning of our bodies and minds, unpacking what thoughts and emotions are, how students could better interact with them, and sharing ways to develop various mental capacities such as focus and mental calm. The teachers were attentive and engaged, and I thought all was going well.


Then one teacher raised her hand and asked: If we give all this information and tools to our students ahead of time, won’t this diminish the impact of the environmental stress, therefore undermining any learning they will do while in that environment?


I will admit that I was surprised by the question, but obligingly offer this answer: First, as humans, our capacity to actually learn while in stressful situations is naturally compromised. We are using all of our capacity to get through the situation. Second, exposing students to high-stress situations without tools is, in my view, is inefficient and frankly a “cruel and unusual punishment” mode of learning. When the end goal is to have students prepared and experienced in managing stressful situations, why not start with the preparation and then expose them to stress? Since that, I presumed, was the end goal: prepared students coping well with stressful, arduous environments.


I will admit that I was surprised by the question, but obligingly offer this answer: First, as humans, our capacity to actually learn while in stressful situations is naturally compromised. We are using all of our capacity to get through the situation. Second, exposing students to high-stress situations without tools is, in my view, is inefficient and frankly a “cruel and unusual punishment” mode of learning. When the end goal is to have students prepared and experienced in managing stressful situations, why not start with the preparation and then expose them to stress? Since that, I presumed, was the end goal: prepared students coping well with stressful, arduous environments.


Still, I was intrigued by the question. It suggested a cart-before-the-horse approach to training. Use the stress itself to inoculate students from the stress. I learned that this school's approach was to put students in challenging situations without guidance or preparation--to see how they react. Teachers were instructed not to help or coach during these early sessions. Students were not allowed to help or encourage each other through a challenge. All in the interest of seeing how situations unfolded and how students figured out (or failed to figure out ) how to cope.


Herd Immunity or Vaccination?


In justifying my answer that preparation was the way to go, I drew upon an analogy about how different countries are managing the Covid-19 pandemic. Some countries are settling on a minimalist approach, willing to accept higher levels of infection and death, in the interest of achieving eventual herd immunity. Let people do what they like, and if they get infected and die, so be it, but eventually, the pandemic will run its course. Herd immunity is undeniably effective…but brutal.


Many countries as a result have opted for the social regulation and vaccination path, being unwilling to accept the consequences of increased suffering and death. These countries focused their efforts on regulating safety through masking, social isolation, and lock-downs. And then, once vaccines became available, vaccinating their people. All of these measures prioritized protecting people first.


The problem for this school arose when students were unable to cope with the environmental challenges for whatever reason. The intensity of these challenges affected students differently. Some weathered the challenge, while others were traumatized. Such students struggled, suffered, were injured, and some left. We could easily equate this outcome to those people who “took one for their team” in the herd immunity sense, those who were infected, and those who died of the virus.


Too many of us operate with similar assumptions regarding performing under pressure. Either we are unaware that there are skills we can learn to prepare us to perform better, we don’t make the effort to learn them, or we perceive that needing such skills means we are “soft.” This is akin to thinking I shouldn’t wear a coat outside if it’s cold because doing so won’t teach me how to cope with the cold. Of course, in the coat example, it's easy to say, but why would we even want to learn that…when we can just put on a coat?? My point, exactly. Why suffer through adversity when you can learn the skills to help you cope with that adversity in a less painful way? Pain for its own sake is just pain…and too high a cost to pay at the altar of high performance.


A Better, Safer Way


When it comes to how to learn to perform under pressure, it is far better--from the start--to equip students with the tools to cope with adverse environments. Use the challenge of the adversity to come as a motivational lever, not as sink-or-swim learning tool. Once skills are used and understood, then expose them to challenge in a graded way where coaching, debriefing, and learning can occur. Neuroscience tells us that our brains function more efficiently, able to access more cognitive tools, and learning is more effective when conditions are of moderate, not high stress. There’s more learning, less unnecessary suffering, and the outcome - high performance under stress - is more likely to happen.


Preparing to perform in this way can mean any number of things. Getting the right equipment to hand. Physically practicing whatever it is you want to get right on the day. Checking out the performance venue ahead of time so it feels like you’ve been there before - or at least getting there early enough to do that reconnaissance.


On the mental side, visualizing your performance while bringing to mind as vividly as possible the performance context and conditions — where will you be, who else will be there, what you will do and say. Cultivating positive and productive self-talk.


Preparing to perform can also mean developing the states of mind conducive to enhanced performance under pressure: focused, calm, and non-reactive. This can be achieved through meditation, breathing, and skillful use of relaxation practices.


Preparing to perform may also mean cultivating the coping skills that will help you better manage the unexpected. Visualization in this vein can mean thinking about some “worst-case” performance scenarios and seeing yourself experiencing that and recovering. Everyone, including even elite athletes, hates doing this work since it feels scary, icky, and even a bit superstitious as if in the thinking, you are increasing the chances of it happening. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.


People who DON’T equip themselves in these ways before the big-pressure performance are setting themselves up for their own version of herd immunity. Yep, you will likely get through the performance, but subject yourself to unnecessary pain, suffering, and the real possibility of a performance that falls short.


Who are you? Someone who prepares to perform, or uses performances to prepare? If it’s the latter, maybe it’s time to re-think your approach. I can help with this - contact me at kirsten@kirstenpetersonconsulting.


High performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on how to achieve the performance goals you want while doing less damage to yourself or your people. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at kirsten@kirstenpetersonconsulting.com




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