What is stress and how does it affect people’s attention and performance? McGrath (1970) defined stress as “a substantial imbalance between demand (physical and/or psychological) and response capability, under conditions where failure to meet the demand has important consequences”. He also created a model that proposes that stress involve four interrelated stages: environmental demand; perception of demand; stress response; and behavioral consequences (MacGrath, 1970).
A study conducted by Boucher and Ryan (2011) explored the performance stress on very young musicians. The literature suggested that performance anxiety is not an issue among young children, but the findings from their study suggest otherwise. They found that anxiety is present in some children from their first performances and that these early performance experiences can immediately influence children’s responses on succeeding performances (Boucher & Ryan, 2011). In relation to the first stage of stress process, environmental demand, Boucher and Ryan (2011) suggested for teachers and researchers to investigate the impact of venue and location to performance experience and how familiarization of the performance venue affects children’s comfort and success in performance. Changing the uncertainty in children can possibly enhance their esteem and confidence even during their first performances.
In sports, there is a concept called home-court advantage. Baumeister and Steinhilber (1984) found out during their study of baseball World Series games played from 1924 to 1982 that the home team won 60% of the first two games but only 40% of the last two games. This suggest that home-court advantage, or familiarity of the performance venue, can become a disadvantage to performers as tasks become more difficult (Weinberg, 2015).
The second stage of the stress process is perception of demand or how people perceive any physical or psychological demand (Weinberg, 2015). As unique individuals, our perception, responses, and behaviors differ from each other. According to Weinberg (2015) and other researchers (Scanlan, 1986; Hardy & Hutchinson, 2007), trait anxiety plays an important role in influencing people’s perception of any psychological or physical demand. Thus, people with high trait anxiety tend to perceive more situations as threatening than low-trait anxious people (Weinberg, 2015). This notion is supported by Hardy and Hutchinson’s research suggesting that “anxiety interacts with effort in such a way that increased effort leads to enhanced performance when participants have moderate levels of anxiety, but impaired performance when participants have very high levels of anxiety” (2007). Furthermore, the paper of Hardy and Hutchinson (2007) discussed the relationship between processing efficiency theory and performance. According to Eysenck (1992; 1997) and Calvo (1992), worry is the key dimension in the anxiety response and affects performance through two mechanisms: (1) worry reduces the effective attentional capacity of the performer; and (2) worry affects the importance of an event to the performer, therefore increases the effort that performer invest on the task. Evidence from laboratory-based cognitive tasks support the notion that cognitively anxious performers invest additional effort in performance to make up for processing deficits caused by resources lost to worry (Eysenck & Calvo,1992). Lastly, with perception comes appraisal, or the person’s assessment of his/her own capacity to deal with demands. Lazarus and Folkman (1984) identified two appraisal processes during acutely stressful situations: primary appraisal and secondary appraisal. During primary appraisal, a person considers whether the situation presents risk, harm, or loss versus whether the situation presents a challenge that may provide positive outcomes. Secondary appraisal is when a person analyzes his/her ability to deal with the challenge and its probable outcomes (Regehr et al., 2008).
Stress response is the third stage in the stress process. It is during this stage when a person psychologically and physically responds to the situation based on his/her perception. How does the stimulus affect the psychological and physiological responses of the performer? At this stage, the effect of stress on a performer’s attention and concentration is crucial.
Tunnel vision, or when a person under stress perceives and confirms only clear and familiar information which aligns with the situation (Cao & Nijholt, 2008), can also mean that the person sees only the threat in a situation or stimulus. In acutely stressful situations, researchers found that individuals show a significant narrowing of attention or tunnel vision (Medl, 1999), while other researchers reported that some individuals demonstrated a broadened attention span, making them more susceptible to distraction (Eysenck, MacLeod, & Matthews, 1987; Keogh & French, 2001).
A study involving paramedics who were exposed to simulated stressful scenario showed a significant individual variations in anxiety responses and in performance changes. The results were 60% of the paramedics demonstrated performance impairments in their ability to perform drug dosage calculations, 20% showed no change in performance and the remaining 20% showed an increase in performance (LeBlanc, MacDonald, McArthur, King, & Lepine, 2005). When it comes to sports, the research conducted by Oudejans et al. (2011) revealed that the attention of expert athletes was often focused on worries and hardly ever on movement execution when under pressure. The results of their study suggest that attention to performance worries, distracting thoughts and worries occur much more often than skill execution even in expert athletes. This generally explains the occurrence of choking under pressure in sports (Oudejans et al., 2011).
The fourth stage of the stress process involves the behavioral consequences which may predict a person’s future performance if faced with tasks of similar, less or more difficulty. An experiment conducted by DeMaria, et al. (2010) is a good example. Their research sought to determine if high-fidelity stimulation when teaching advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) skills would result in better knowledge, application, and retention of ACLS skills. The results of their research showed that simulation with added emotional stressors led to greater anxiety during ACLS instruction but was also correlated with enhanced performance of ACLS skills (DeMaria, et al.,2010).
Individual difference variables may affect stress-effort-relationship. They either enhance or impair performance. Wallace and Baumeister (2002) presented evidence that high narcissists are less likely to choke during performance than low narcissists. On the other hand, Hardy (1996; 2004), Woodman and Carrington (2004) provided some evidence that self-confidence may protect individuals from potentially debilitating effects of anxiety. Having these information and those abovementioned, it is worth noting that in understanding the effects of anxiety and stress on people’s performance, one must first recognize individual differences in personality, self-appraisal, perception, behavior, and responses. In doing so, training and coaching strategies will most likely fit each person based on their individual needs, unique characteristics and capabilities.
There are plenty of ways that leaders, trainers, teachers, and coaches can influence performers and students in handling stress so to not affect their performances negatively. Fornette, et al. (2012) investigated the effects of cognitive-adaptation training on flight performance and stress management in a sample of pilot cadets who were undergoing a basic flying program. The overall result of their study showed that cognitive-adaptation training of the type used in their study can enhance both cognitive and emotional adaptation skills. Just like the pilots in the study of Fornette, et al. (2012), athletes and professional performers encounter complexity, unforeseen events, uncertainty, and even situations unknown to them. To be able to maintain or enhance one’s performance, regardless of the stress and anxiety being experienced due to various external factors, one must be able to handle and manage stress. When it comes to stress management, cognitive change, which forms the foundation of cognitive-behavioral therapy, is considered to be one of the most effective strategies (Butler, Chapman, Forman, & Beck, 2006; Gross & John, 2003) presumably due to its direct focus on the cause of emotions. Applying the concepts of CBT, professionals and practitioners in leadership roles may utilize the principles of metacognitive techniques such as cognitive restructuring, which is a way of applying more adaptive modes of thinking or representations of events that trigger stress and anxiety (Fornette, et al., 2012). With cognitive change, people will perceive challenging tasks and difficult situations with positive impact on the improvement of their skills or even learning instead of being debilitative. Another technique that was expanded from the principles of CBT, is mindfulness training, where a person functions in a mental mode characterized by full and opened attention to present-moment experience without judgement of automatic reactivity (Fornette, et al., 2012). Mindfulness training will allow individuals to confront challenges and tasks by focusing on the present and utilizing one’s skill than focusing on the outcome, in athletes, to win or lose. Applying the concepts of self-focus and destruction theories, mindfulness will help people to pay more attention to skill execution than performance worries.
By changing the way a person perceives a situation or stimuli will significantly affect that person’s response or behavior towards the situation or stimuli. The change in perception, response and behavior does not happen over night, so consistent coaching and training is necessary. Yet, again, one must consider a person’s capacity and willingness to undergo the training that will help them improve or change how they perceive and approach stressful situations.
Another area that coaches, leaders and teachers can tap into is a person’s self-esteem through self-appraisal. A lot of times, people who consider their skills well below the challenge they are being confronted with seem to experience higher levels of stress and anxiety than those who are more confident about their skills and capability of confronting a challenging task or situation. Improving a person’s self-confidence by helping that person enhance their skills through simulated training is a great way of providing that person the affirmation that he/she is capable of performing well regardless of the difficulty of the task. Intensive trainings for professions that are more likely to be exposed to traumatic and stressful situations such as medical professionals, military, and law enforcement officers, involve high-fidelity simulations where students and trainees are trained using realistic situations, equipment, and tools. These types of simulations help trainees improve their assessment skills and provide them the opportunity to apply critical thinking and evaluation of situations that they may encounter on their jobs. However, according to DeMaria, et al. (2010), a specific measurable amount of stress and anxiety must be applied to simulated trainings for it to be beneficial for knowledge retention, optimal for learning, and does not compromise education experience and self-efficacy. The training should apply environment fidelity that is consistent with reality, and should not cause a level of anxiety that is demotivating. DeMaria, et al. (2010) summarized the difficult and stressful processes of being an active learner as “negative emotions, such as anxiety or frustration are generally framed as demotivating and diversionary, shifting attentional resources away from educational activities and hindering retention and performance, especially in novice learners whose cognitive demands are high… excessive stress during a scenario may be detrimental to performance even amongst experts…” (Wood et al., 2000; Kanfer & Ackerman, 1989; Chen, Gully, Whiteman, & Kilcullen, 2000; Bell & Kozlowski, 2008; Conrad, et al., 2009). Generally, coaches, teachers, leaders, and trainers must consider individual difference variables in stress response and perception that affects performance in people. Also the level of stress and difficulty in trainings or even simulations must not negatively affect the self-efficacy of students and trainees.
Skills and knowledge are usually not enough to predict a person’s performance. Factors such as personality and self-efficacy seem to play crucial roles in determining how a person will approach tasks, challenges, and goals which are nearly as important than skills and knowledge themselves. It is important to consider said factors when attempting to affect cognitive change in people because the type of training required and needed must fit the individual for it to be successful or else it may just cause more anxiety and unnecessary stress leading to impediment of learning and impairment of performance.
- Boucher, H., & Ryan, C.A. (2011). Performance stress and the very young musician. Journal of Research in Music Education, 58(4), 329-345
- Cao, Y., & Nijholt, A. (2008). Modality planning for preventing tunnel vision in crisis management. AE Enscheded: Netherlands, Human Media Interaction Group.
- De Maria, S. Jr., et al. (2010). Adding emotional stressors to training in simulated cardiopulmonary arrest enhances participant performance. Medical Education, 44: 1006-1015
- Fornette, M-P., et al. (2012). Cognitive-adaptation training for improving performance and stress management of air force pilots. The International Journal of Aviation Psychology, 22(3): 203-223
- Hardy, L, & Hutchinson, A. (2007). Effects of performance anxiety on effort and performance in rock climbing: A test of processing efficiency theory. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 20(2): 147-161
- Oudejans, R.R.D., et al. (2011). Thoughts and attention of athletes under pressure: Skill-focus or performance worries? Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 24(1): 59-73
- Regehr, C., et al. (2008). Acute stress and performance in police recruits. Stress and Health, 24: 295-303