UCL Innovation and Enterprise


Performance under stress

3 June 2015

Performance under stress is a make-or-break skill in the modern world. It makes the difference in everyone’s life, from daily driving through to managing our workloads. Extreme sports athletes must be masters of this skill, as they make snap decisions under death-defying conditions and while pushing their bodies to the limit.

Performance under stress - lady cycling

To better understand the human element of performance, Dunlop Tyres, in partnership with KINC agency, decided to commission a study to explore the psychological factors that enable effective performance under pressure. With an idea in mind as to what they wanted to quantify, they called upon the team at UCL Consultants to help them locate a neuroscientist who could help them design and deliver the experiment. Based on their needs, we brought them together with Professor Vincent Walsh, an expert in human brain research who also works with many elite sports people and teams.

To illustrate the difference between elite extreme stars and members of the pubic, the performance of five members of the public was compared with that of five professional extreme sports athletes. The participants were challenged in four tasks taken from the scientific literature on cognitive performance. All together, the experiment evaluated participants’ ability to pick out a signal from a cluttered background, assess odds and risk, and decide whether to act or hold back, either under normal circumstances or while under physical or mental stress.

“What often sets some people apart from the rest is not how good they are in the practice arena, but how good they are under pressure,” said Professor Walsh, and the results clearly supported this. Before stress, there was no difference between the elite athletes and the non-elites. Once stress was applied, however, the advantage of the elite athletes was clear. Regardless of the task or whether the stress was physical or mental, once pressure was introduced the advantage of the athletes was clear. They consistently displayed faster reactions, greater accuracy, and better odds estimation under pressure. The elite athletes sometimes actually improved with stress. For example, in a visual search task where elites and non-elites performed the same in the stress-free condition, a bout of brief and intense physical activity meant that while the non-elites took half again as long to spot the stimulus, the elite athletes were actually 20% faster than before. “I’ve seen this in other elite athletes,” reported Prof Walsh. “They can stay focussed while others melt down.”

Dunlop Tyres Consumer and Brand PR Manager, Kate Rock, said: “We are proud to have commissioned this fascinating piece of work to understand how performance holds up under pressure in that one moment that decides everything.

“Performance is more than about cars and motorsports to us, it’s a mindset. These high-risk sportspeople, who perform under pressure and constantly seek the next challenge, share the Dunlop mindset and there may be many other people out there who also possess it.”

Björn Christianson, Consultancy Manager at UCL Consultants, commented, “Good science addresses questions that matter. That both UCL and Dunlop take decision-making and human performance seriously provided the opportunity for a collaboration with real return to both parties, and I’m proud to be part of putting it together.” Prof Walsh agreed, saying, “This was a great group of people to test. It’s not always easy to get time in the schedules of elite groups… we were able to have fun, do some science, and make it mean something to individuals.”

Find out more:

If you want to find out more about the results and what they say about elite athlete performance, please watch the study video on YouTube, visit Dunlop Mindset, or contact UCL Consultants by phone at +44 (0) 207 679 9796, or by email at info@uclconsultants.com.