by Dr. Ben Bernstein
This article is an excerpt from A Teen’s Guide to Success by Dr. Ben Bernstein which is forthcoming in May. You can learn more about Dr. Bernstein and his book by clicking here A Teen’s Guide to Success.
I’m a performance coach. People come to work with me when they want to improve their performance and I work with teenagers and surgeons, actors, athletes, executives and all kinds of people taking tests. I’m often asked, “How can you coach so many different people? How can you help a golfer improve her golf game? Do you play golf? How can you help a student score higher on his AP Biology exam? Do you know all about the AP Biology?”
Here’s what I answer: “I know about human performance and what everyone needs to perform at his or her best. While I don’t know as much as the people who come to work with me—I don’t play golf, I never filled a tooth, I haven’t run a major corporation, and I haven’t taken the AP Biology exam—I know what makes performance successful.” Of course, the next question is, “And what is that?”
The answer is simple. The common denominator across every field of human endeavor is the person, and in every field it’s the person who has to perform. What I have learned, researched and taught over many years can be applied to anything human beings do. Anyone can improve their performance by learning to be calm, confident, and focused.
You may well ask, “But this is a book about teenagers. What does being a teenager have to do with performance?”
The dictionary defines the word “performance” as the action or process of carrying out or accomplishing an action, task, or function, and I think of performance in this broad way. In other words, no matter what you’re doing-- whether you’re a doctor working with her patients, a basketball player sinking a 3-point shot, a pianist playing a recital, a lawyer sitting for the Bar exam, or a teenager in history class—you are performing. Think of your performance as the act of being and becoming yourself. Your parents are performing as parents, your teachers are performing as teachers, and you are performing as a teenager. Successful performance means that your parents, your teachers, and you are accomplishing that task well. You can succeed at being who you are.
The Constant is You
When people come to me for performance coaching, my first thought is: What does this person need to perform at his or her best? Of course, they have to learn the subject matter-- the sport, the music, the medicine-- I never make light of that--but that is only part of the picture. As you know from school, subject matter is always changing. You might have a test in algebra today, a chemistry quiz next week, an oral presentation in history the week after. But there is one thing that doesn’t change, one constant at the center of everything you do in life, no matter what the subject, no matter what the setting. That constant is you, the individual. It might be a driving test or a diving test. It may be your relationship with your parent or your relationship with a friend. Whatever the challenge is for you, you are the one who is facing it.
The question you have to ask yourself is: “What can I learn about myself that will help me perform better in any situation? How can I take control of this process?” Unfortunately, our schools generally do not give students the personal tools they need to help them deal with challenging situations—be they tests in school or in life. Courses and books address only the object of study, not the subject. The common use of the word subject is the material being studied, but in reality, the subject is you.
When I say, “the constant is you,” I mean that you are what is certain and continual in all of your life situations. Certainty refers to something that stays the same in spite of outer conditions. Imagine what it would be like to have this certainty in yourself when you face any challenge, the firm faith that you will succeed under any circumstances. On a test in school you might feel rushed, you might be tired, or you might be under extreme pressure to achieve a high score. You might break a pencil or lose your place. During a musical performance you might miss a beat. In an argument with a friend you may suddenly lose confidence in your point of view. Whatever the challenge, whatever the environment, performance coaching can teach you how to be constant in yourself so you can perform at your best.
Stress and Performance
Across the board, in every field of human endeavor, there is one factor that affects performance positively and negatively, and that is stress. As I said a moment ago, we teach people all kinds of things in schools and universities—countless subjects in many different fields—our school systems usually neglect teaching people about stress and how to deal with it. Again, we assume that success means learning the subject matter. But I’ve seen scores of people who are very knowledgeable and experienced at what they do—whether it’s playing the trumpet or being a swimmer—but when it comes time to perform they stress out and lose it. Why is this important? Because when you have to deal with a difficult situation—when you have to perform—the way you feel about yourself—how able you are to stay grounded and present—largely determines how successful you will be. Understand that the quality of the experience in any challenge directly affects the results.
The reason for this is simple: stress affects performance. This is well known in many fields, especially in sports. Athletes need a certain amount of stress to charge them up so they can perform at their best. But if the stress crosses a certain line—either too much stress or too little—it starts hurting their ability to do well. This concept is known as the “zone of optimal functioning.”
Get in the Zone
The amount of stress needed to produce optimal performance, the amount considered healthful, is different for each person. Some people have to feel extremely worked up to jump-start themselves to perform well. Others will feel jangled and nervous with that much stress, and it will destroy their concentration. For each person there is a zone of optimal functioning where the level of stress is just right. They are stimulated just enough to be creative and energized, to solve problems rationally, and to achieve a sense of self-satisfaction in their performance. Their adrenaline is not pumping too hard, nor are they lethargic, so they are able to progress at a good rate.
This book is designed to show you how to find and stay in your zone of optimal functioning as a teenager, whether you’re at home, at school or you’re with your friends. By reading the examples and doing the exercises, you will learn how to control stress rather than let it control you. It’s unrealistic to think you won’t have any stress. But you need to know how to keep your stress at an optimal level so that it charges you up and keeps you at the top of your game rather than wears you out, makes you perform sub-optimally and runs you into the ground.
The relationship between stress and performance is one of the most thoroughly researched phenomena in the field of psychology. A hundred years ago two psychologists, Yerkes and Dodson, were the first to study it. Here’s what they found out:
As you can see, when your stress escalates to the point of discomfort, your effectiveness diminishes. When there’s too much stress, you leave “the optimal zone.” The result is your problem-solving skills contract and your self-esteem and confidence decline. You have trouble staying focused so you feel tense, sometimes to the point of feeling sick or exhausted. At this point, your temper is short, fuses blow and your performance goes down the tubes.
This relationship between stress and performance holds true whether you are performing in a play, or playing a baseball game, delivering a speech, or having a heated discussion with a family member or friend. Again, to most people, a performance suggests something that happens on a stage or an athletic field. But if we think of performance as an action, and act of carrying out something, performance involves learning how to be fully present in the moment, right there when you have to act. It doesn’t matter how well you did something last week, or how well you will do tomorrow; the only thing that counts is how you perform now. This state of performing at your best in the present moment is well known to athletes, stage performers, surgeons and many, many others who must bring their knowledge, training and experience to bear right now. I want you, as a teenager, to learn how to do it just like the pros.
Remember, knowing and performing are not the same thing. On a test in school knowing refers to the comprehension of content. Performing refers to what youdo with what you know.
This is true in any field, and it is true in life. The primary complaint I hear from my clients is that they know what they’re supposed to know and do, but when faced with the challenge they get “stressed out” and they can’t perform. The bottom line is that to be successful you have to deliver what you know. Often you know what to do, but when you let stress get in the way carrying it out is another matter. Because stress has a direct impact on your performance, it is essential that you learn how to recognize it and reduce it so that the stress is not destructive. This is the key to your success in anything you do in life. A good part of this book is to help you become more aware of your stress before it gets out of hand.
What is Stress?
When I begin working with my teenage clients, the first question I always ask is, “What do you think causes your stress?” Here are some of the things they tell me:
“Too much homework.”
“My little sister.”
“If I don’t receive good grades, I won’t be accepted by a good college.”
“Teachers. They don’t get me.”
“There are too many other things going on in my life.”
“My friends put a lot of pressure on me.”
“Tests make me nervous.”
When you hear statements like these, you’re probably thinking, Yep, that just about covers all the bases. But what if I told you those weren’t the bases? What if I said none of those “reasons” is actually thecause of your stress?
We all seem to think that stress comes from other people, too little time, exorbitant expectations, unfavorable comparisons with others, and so on. I know it looks as if these conditions are the source of yourstress, but they aren’t. These are merely part and parcel of living. They include all the conditions of your life. Conditions in and of themselves do not cause stress. If they did, everyone who lived under the same conditions would react exactly the same way and succumb to stress. As you’ll see, this is not the case. Many people have the ability to successfully manage the conditions.
I can hear you thinking, But all of those things really docause a lot of tension. There’s no question about it, life is stressful. As you’ll see, I have a different theory about what causes stress. It starts with looking at what you are doing when you face something challenging or difficult, be it a test in school, an upset parent, a piano recital, or an angry friend.
Your Reaction is Stressful
Whether it’s difficult siblings, demanding teachers, inconsiderate friends, pushy parents, challenging tests, a boring job, or a high-stakes athletic competition, all of these things are conditions that exist outside of your skin. They are never within your control, and we all know that when the going gets rough, if you had your way, they wouldn’t be there at all. These conditions don’t really affect you, however, until you let them get under your skin. That’s when you transform them from external factors to internal problems.
In any situation you will have a reaction to outside events, and it will either be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. That’s the range. When your reaction is unpleasant, that’s what we call stress because it causes you to reject what’s happening. The string of thoughts goes something like this: I don’t like what’s going on. Something is wrong. I want this situation to change. I want it to go away. The first clue that an outside event is causing a stress reaction is that all of a sudden, you cannot relax and you want things to be different. You can’t accept this moment just as it is. <pull quote>Whenever something has to change or you won’t be happy, that is the experience of stress.<end pull quote>
Not everyone has an unpleasant reaction to the same events. Imagine two people taking the same test: Sally is sitting at a desk on the left and Judy at a desk on the right. Sally is sure she is going fail. Her body is tense, she’s doubting herself and she can’t stay on task. Judy, on the other hand, is working through each question, one at a time, in a calm, confident and focused way.
Many people taking a test will identify with Sally. They are nervous. They exhibit physical symptoms (headache, stomachache, stiff neck), they are attacked by self-doubt, and they can barely keep their mind on the page. The result is they fail or receive poor scores that don’t match up with their ability or effort.
Or maybe their scores turn out to be respectable in spite of the strains upon them. But there’s hidden damage. They may do well, but they suffer far too much. Taking tests causes them a great deal of anguish and anxiety, yet they still manage to be fairly successful on test after test. They don’t do anything about their discomfort because they don’t think that it can change. When I ask about the possibility of improving the experience, they shrug their shoulders and say, “That’s just the way it is. Tests are a pain in the butt. I hate them, but I do all right.” You can substitute any “challenging situation” for “tests.”
So there are two categories of people like Sally: either they’re miserable and they fail or they’re miserable and they succeed. It’s good to succeed, but the process doesn’t have to be as insufferable as sitting on a pack of thumbtacks.
Now let’s talk about Judy. Those who identify with this individual are not agitated when they face something demanding like a test. Somehow, they are much calmer, they believe in themselves, and they are able to stay on task. The taking of the test, the amount of time they have to take it, and the expectations upon them to do well—none of these factors triggers a negative reaction. Their scores are good to excellent without all the drama. In other words, they accept the conditions as they are and do what they need to do to manage them well. They don’t feel stressed.
So here’s the important question: what are you doing that causes you to feel so much stress?
The Three Basic Stress Reactions
If you suffer from feeling stressed anywhere in your life you are doing one or more of the following:
· You are holding tension somewhere in your body.
· You are thinking negatively about yourself and how you’re doing.
· You are becoming distracted.
Earlier I said that stress is a pressure, strain or demand. These definitions match up perfectly with the above list. When you grow physically tense, when you think negatively about your performance, or when you are distracted from completing the task at hand, you are putting unnecessary pressure, strain and demands upon yourself. You know this is happening because you feel like you’re being punished or threatened. You may also feel exhausted, uncomfortable, and panicked. The physical tension, the negative thoughts and the distractions—these are all burdens you are placing on yourself, and they negatively impact your performance. In other words, you are making any situation much harder than it has to be.