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An early lesson in performance under pressure

posted: February 26, 2017

tl;dr: I learned pretty early that pressure has a huge impact on performance...

Last week’s post dealt with the theme of performance under pressure, in the context of a job interview. I was lucky enough to learn at an early age that pressure can have a huge impact on performance, as this tale shows.

When I was in high school one of the local TV stations had a weekly quiz show competition between high school teams entitled “Answers Please”. The format was pretty basic: four-person teams from two high schools competed against each other by answering questions asked by a quizmaster. Each player had a button, and the first one to hit the button while or after a question was being asked got the first chance to answer the question and score points for his/her team. The team at the end of the show with the most points won, and got to compete again next week.

The Answers Please set around the time I was on the show

The questions were chosen from a range of subjects that smart high schoolers might be expected to know, including literature, history, geography, and (my strength) some math and science. Unfortunately for me, most of the questions were not math and science. It was the type of show that, if you had memorized lots of Shakespeare, knew the capitals of all fifty states and the year each had entered the Union, and could recite all the Presidents’ names in order, you would do very well.

My high school landed a spot on the show when I was a senior. To choose the team my school had an internal competition in which kids who wanted to be on the team were asked questions that had been on previous shows. Once the team was chosen we had a bunch of practice sessions in which we attempted to simulate game conditions by having a quizmaster (our coach) ask questions of the team of four, with the first person who hit a button getting the chance to answer and score points.

I barely made the team as the fourth member. I was mostly a math-and-science kid, and the three other members of the team were more widely read than me, and were able to answer more of the questions. There was a considerable gap between the points they scored during our practice sessions and the points I scored. In fact, I barely finished ahead of the fifth member of the team, the alternate who would only appear on the show if something happened to one of the top four.

This would be the first time that each of the four of us would be on TV. It was a different era, and being on TV then was a much bigger deal than being on TV now. There were only four channels: ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS, and thus many fewer opportunities to be on TV. Home video cameras and YouTube didn’t exist, so there was no way to start on the low end of video production and move on up to a television network. Remote satellite feeds weren’t common, so being on TV meant driving to the TV studio of one of the four network stations in your major metropolitan area and going under the hot, bright lights in a TV studio and staring into a very large piece of equipment (the studio camera) shrouded in darkness. Of course we were all dressed in our Sunday best, as were our entire families who accompanied us and formed the live studio audience: they also wanted to look good, for the panoramic audience shot that was part of the show’s format.

A funny thing happened under those hot, bright lights: I, the very obviously fourth member of our team (I was seated furthest from the host), ended up scoring more than half my team’s points, although it was not nearly enough to carry my team and we lost. I did not all of a sudden become a whiz at Shakespeare and the capitals of the Dakotas; I just answered the math and science questions, plus a few others, that I knew. My shining moment came during the one supposedly tough computational question: all participants were supplied with a pencil and paper for this question, which was part of the show’s format. The question was “thirty miles per hour is how many feet per second?” Immediately seven players picked up their pencils and started madly multiplying and dividing four digit numbers. I calmly hit the button and immediately answered “forty-four feet per second”. By that point in my schooling I had done enough “a train leaves Chicago at two o’clock” math word problems that I knew sixty miles per hour was eighty-eight feet per second, so thirty miles per hour was just half that.

No one was more surprised by the overall results than me. After the show my teammates sheepishly congratulated me for doing well, and I was left thinking “what happened to you guys up there?” I knew they were all better players of this game than me. Something strange had happened when the lights were shining and the world was watching.

I realized that the pressure had gotten to my teammates, and they mostly froze up. The pressure on them was greater than the pressure on me, the fourth member of the team. They were supposed to score most of the points, and I was just happy to be there, to answer the occasional math and science question. Expectations were much higher for them than for me, among everyone who was watching: our team’s coach, the family members, and the no doubt millions of people 😉 watching on TV at home.

Pressure has a huge impact on performance; I learned this lesson at an early age.

if you are curious to see an episode of Answers Please, check out this YouTube clip, which appears to have been digitized from an analog VCR tape. There are some awfully nervous players, and a few who don’t seem too bothered by being on TV. To my knowledge no tape exists of the show I was on, but perhaps one will surface, and I’ll be able to see how many of these recollections are correct. Another lesson I’ve learned over the years is that memory is imperfect.