by Matthew Stollak on Thursday, March 15, 2012

I'm not afraid to admit that, under pressure, I may not have performed to the best of my ability.  I may have whiffed during a crucial interview or two.  However, I never had a day as bad as Billy Cundiff in this year's AFC championship game.

With mere seconds left, Cundiff had an opportunity to kick a short 32-yard FG to send his Baltimore Ravens into overtime against the New England Patriots.  However, despite not missing a fourth quarter FG all season, the kick sailed left, and the Ravens ended their season just short of the ultimate goal - a trip to the Super Bowl.

So, why do we find ourselves being unable to perform up to par when the pressure comes, despite years of experience to the contrary?  A recent ESPN - The Magazine article examined new approaches to this very question.  One such approach involves what is called heart rate variability (HRV):
Designed by the research company HeartMath, the emWave examines in real time how athletes are responding to old sports psychology tricks like visualization and meditative breathing.  It's the same gimo used by military elite tactical teams to regulate stress levels before deployment.
The goal of HeartMath is to help athletes reach a state of "coherence;" gentle, repeating HRV waves that reflect feelings of gratitude and love.  

So, why can't even the best of us reach that coherent state?
A semiconsensus is developing among the most advanced scientists.  In the typical fight-or-flight scenario, scary high-pressure moment X assaults the senses and is routed to the amygdala, aka the unconscious fear center.  For well-trained athletes, that's not a problem: a field goal kick, golf swing or free throw is an ingrained action stored in the striatum, the brain's autopilot.  The prefrontal cortex, our analytical thinker, doesn't even need to show up. But under the gun, that super-smart part of the brain thinks it's so great and tries to butt in.
It's not stress that causes problems, it is thinking about it too much that is too blame.

The jury still is out as to the true effectiveness of HeartMath's approach, but it might provide an additional tool in a manager's belt as he or she addresses poor performance by an employee.

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