What Doctors Can Learn From Elite Athletes About Performance Under Pressure

Doctors can learn a lot from watching top athletes about  performance pressure. Take for example, the Olympics in Sochi. If you have been watching the Olympics you must have noticed that it is seconds, not minutes, in an event that separates winners from losers, yes?

You may have even noticed that the news anchors have tried to dissect the precise moment when an Olympic Medal hopeful  lost his or her competitive edge. While there perhaps are many hypotheses on this matter, there are also clinically validated reasons for such performance breeches noted  in sports psychology journals. There are documented cases of coaching that  athletes received before, during and after through highly competitive events.

Here is what docs need to know; when athletes are under extreme pressure, they tend to lean into their native attentional and interpersonal styles.

What does this mean exactly? It means that while one may rock along just fine when there are “normal” circumstances  in play, the acceleration of stress due to high stakes elicits a different type of focus and  attention. The situation calls for the individual to pay attention to the demands of that precise moment and respond as appropriately as possible to those demands.

Performance pressures cause individuals to lean into their native strengths in  the following areas:

  1. Attentional Styles: How one pays attention.
  2. Interpersonal Styles: Dimensions that shape our behavior in every instance of performance.

The fact is that a perceived  “strength” turns into a liability in a given moment.

A concrete example in the interpersonal style aspect is “control” or “need to be in charge.” If an athlete is high on the need to control circumstances in ordinary situations, he/she may become extremely controlling in high performance settings. Depending on the circumstances, “a high need to control” may work against the individual especially in a team sport setting where collaboration is pivotal to the ultimate “win.”

Another example in Olympic sports that you may have witnessed this week is the momentary distraction or “attentional” lapse that causes the normally highly proficient bobsledder to  jump into the sled slower than is required resulting in a half-second slower start and a lower performance score. Relative to a physician, a momentary distraction could result in a misplaced instrument during a very high stakes surgery. A fleeting distraction causing a digression from noticing “real time” patient data on a monitor during a high stakes surgical procedure could also result in negative outcomes.

A simple writing error on a drug prescription that one has prescribed hundreds of times could have high stakes. While there are countless examples, regardless of the arena, sports or medicine, pressure induced errors are real and happen every day. What doctors can learn from elite athletes is the following: when the stakes are high, pressure accelerates.  

Your attentional style and your interpersonal style preferences will escalate under pressure. You may or may not be in sync with the specific demands of the situation which could prove to be potentially be very costly.

What is the antidote to pressure induced mistakes? Attention control training, education on your interpersonal style and awareness. Doctors, also like elite athletes need and require coaching to assist them in understanding where their own interpersonal strengths and attentional styles become their liabilities; especially when the stakes are the highest.  Awareness of the aforementioned, above and beyond all, is the starting point for your own education and self-coaching.

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