Playing to Win vs. Playing Not to Lose – Which Leads to Choking Under Pressure?

I remember my dad showing me this picture when I was a little kid, asking me – “What is this a picture of?”

A duck, I said.

He asked if I saw anything else – which didn’t make sense to me, because all there was to see was a duck.

But when I could finally see that it wasn’t just a duck, I wanted to know which one was the “true” image. Was it really a duck that also happened to look like a bunny? Or a bunny that also resembled a duck?

I came to understand that they are both equally true, depending on how we choose to look at the drawing. But what always stuck with me, was the idea that what is “true” to us, depends on our perspective.

Indeed, our perspective can have a significant impact on how we think, feel, and act.

For instance, if I say “Mauritius is a small and insignificant island in the Indian Ocean”, you may have one opinion of Mauritius.

If I say “Mauritius is the largest ocean state in the world”, you may see things a bit differently (via THNK School of Creative Leadership).

Apparently, the same is true of how we see auditions and performances. A recent study suggests that whether we perceive a performance as either a potentially big win or a big loss can impact whether we perform up to our abilities, or “choke” (i.e. perform significantly worse than would be expected) under pressure.

How so?

A simple game…but let’s make this interesting

23 participants were trained in a difficult timed motor task – basically a simple video game where the objective was to guide an uncooperative virtual object (two balls connected by a bouncy spring) into a small square on the screen by moving one’s index finger. They were given 500 practice trials to get the hang of this tricky task.

Then, the following day, they were tested on their ability to successfully get the object into the square – but with some significant financial stakes involved.

Each participant was given $100 to start with, and the opportunity to win up to an additional $100 (for $200 total) or lose their entire $100 and walk away with nothing. They were told that their winnings would be based on just one of their performance trials, and that it would be picked at random, so they should do their best on each trial.

Go for the win or avoid losing?

Before each performance trial, a message would flash on their screen, letting them know what was at stake for that particular trial. Each trial would represent either a potential gain (of $0, $25, $50, $75, or $100 above and beyond their initial funds), or a potential loss (of $0, $25, $50, $75, or all $100 of their starting funds).

Then they had 2 seconds to guide the object into the square.

What’s better?

So….did participants perform better when they were focused on winning? Or on avoiding losing?

Well, it depends.

One group of participants did better when focused on wins. As the amount of money they could win increased (if you succeed, you win $100), their performance improved. But as the amount of money they stood to lose increased (if you fail, you lose $100), they choked.

The other group had the opposite experience.

Instead of doing better when there was more money to win, they did worse. But when there was more to lose (if you fail, you lose $100), their performance actually got better.

What was the difference between the two groups?

Loss aversion.

Loss aversion

Loss aversion is the observation that most of us feel more strongly about losses than we do about gains. As in, finding $40 on the street would be pretty darn cool, but wouldn’t have as much of an emotional impact as, say, having your awesome $40 windproof umbrella swiped from the restaurant’s umbrella rack while eating lunch.

It turns out that we’re all wired differently, and some of us are more loss averse than others. And this loss aversion factor seems to dictate whether the winning or losing frame of reference leads to great performances or crashing and burning.

For those who hate, hate, hate losing more than they like winning (high loss aversion), focusing on what they stand to lose may lead to better performances under pressure. Conversely, thinking about everything they could gain from winning may sabotage their performance.

I don’t think anybody likes losing, but for those who can get over it more quickly and are more motivated by the feeling of winning (low loss aversion), framing the situation as one in which there is much to gain may help prevent choking, while dwelling on what they stand to lose may disrupt performance.

Take action

When approaching auditions or performances, do you find yourself focusing more on “winning” or what you’re seeking to gain? Or do you tend to focus more on what you stand to lose if you do poorly?

Which have you found most helpful? Maybe neither?

The authors note that the results, while suggestive, need to be explored in greater depth before we can confidently apply them to performance more broadly. I’m intrigued, but at the moment, I suspect most sport psychologists would recommend avoiding thoughts of gains/losses altogether in the moment of performance.

After all, we don’t have direct control over “wins” and “losses” in music any more than we do in sports. We can’t give ourselves the contract for the principal job, send ourselves a note from the admissions committee at our first-choice school, or write ourselves a glowing review in the NY Times.

As such, our attention is best placed on things we actually control, like what we choose to focus on in the moment of a performance, trusting that if we control the controllables to the best of our ability, everything else will work out as well as it possibly could, given the circumstances.

Additional reading

Cool article on the value of reframing on creativity:

And more on the neurological underpinnings of this research on loss aversion and choking:

photo credit: rich_w via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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