Cool Under Pressure: How to Do What You Know How to Do When You Most Need to Do It

By Jeffrey Leiken, M.A.

This may seem like an unusual subject for an article on camp counseling, but as you read on, I think you'll find it actually is a most relevant topic. Consider this: Anyone can perform well when things are going his or her way and circumstances make it easy. It is a rare person, though, who can continue to perform at his or her best, even when things aren't going their way.

In summer camps, anyone can be a great counselor when she has an excited, wellrested, positive group of kids. The greatest counselors, though, are the ones who can continue to be great, even when the pressure builds, chaos is unfolding, and help is nowhere in sight. This article will help ensure you become one of the great ones.

Performance Under Pressure

You can have all the skills, all the theory, and have memorized one hundred books on counseling, parenting, and educating kids, but if in the moment when you actually need the skills, you forget them or can't get yourself to use them — they are useless.

Even if you've never worked with kids before, you can relate to this personally.

Most people have had more than a few instances in their lives when they have underperformed or flat out failed at something that they know how to do — and often even have great competence doing. Just consider times like: taking a test in school when your mind went blank at the wrong moment; an athletic event when you made a critical error at a moment when normally you'd excel; or the times when you lost your cool and were unable to stop yourself from overreacting to something, even though you knew there was a better way to handle it.

When you were younger, you could get away with this. We all make mistakes, and often a simple apology or begging a teacher for an extra credit assignment helped you to make up for your gaffe.

When it comes to working with kids though, you'll often only get one chance.

Managing State

Here is something they don't teach in school, but will make great sense when you think about it:

All learning is state dependent.

The internal state you are in when you learn things is the internal state you need to access to recall what you've learned.

If you do all your studying in a quiet, clean space, where you are calm and relaxed, you'll be at a disadvantage if the place you go to take the real test is filled with clutter, noises from outside, and unexpected distractions that lead you to become tense. If you practice sports under ideal conditions, in a quiet gymnasium with no real-world pressures, you'll have a much harder time performing if the game conditions are tense, turbulent, and unpredictable.

Great teachers and coaches understand this and always seek to condition their students and athletes to various conditions — using every means available to provoke different state responses — ultimately leading them to be able to maintain one state in spite of what is going on around them.

The ability to access the internal states where your knowledge becomes available to you is the essence of the psychology of high performance — and is totally relevant to all human relationships, especially working with kids.

I've found over the years of training thousands of camp counselors that role playing scenarios filled with unexpected twists and turns — that put you and your fellow counselors on the spot and simulate real life — have far more value when the real circumstances happen than ones that are simple and predictable. I encourage your camp to do this with your training as well.

Humans Aren't Rational

Though it certainly would be nice and might solve the world's problems in a matter of hours if humans were completely rational, the truth is that humans are not primarily rational. We are primarily emotional.

When emotions are flaring, they drive behaviors. This is why you will do things when you are angry and upset — or excited and enthralled — that you might never do if you were being rational. It is why the focus of advertising campaigns and politicians is to evoke emotional and primal responses that compel us to act, buy, vote, etc. We react with emotion versus a rational response. It is also why even the campers who are typically the most positive kids will do negative things that you'd otherwise never expect from them if they get into a highly charged emotional state.

So will you.

Scientifically Proven Ways to Improve Your Capacity to Manage Your Internal State

• Get enough sleep.

My first camp director used to say, Anyone can be a great counselor the first week of camp. But it takes a rare counselor who can continue to be great in week seven, after nearly two months of long days, no privacy, sleep deprivation, and a diet of camp food! He would get a laugh when he'd say it. Now there is scientific research to back him up.

Most people reading this article will be between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three. You need on average of nine hours of sleep per night. While your camp director (perhaps like your parents!) will tell you repeatedly to get enough sleep, you probably are not familiar with the growing body of research that substantiates why this is critical.

A University of Virginia study found that teens who are sleep deprived even one hour perform at an IQ level that is up to seven points below their IQ when they are well rested (Sadeh, Gruber, & Raviv, 2003). If you are getting one or more hours less sleep than you need per night (which is common among American teens), you are potentially operating thirty or more points below IQ by the end of each week. It is no wonder that people your age can sleep twelve or more hours on a weekend, just to catch up . . . and why tests taken on Mondays get higher grades from students than those given on Fridays.

The problem is, at camp you are not going to get that weekend to sleep in, and your days are going to be far more active at camp than when you are in school. Once you fall behind, it is almost impossible to catch up.

UC Berkeley research found that sleep is critical for memory retention, particularly taking complex ideas and skills and integrating them into learning that becomes readily available to you (Bronson & Merryman, 2009).

Studies on childhood obesity also find a correlation between sleep deprivation and binge eating (ever get the munchies late at night, even though this is the worst time to be eating a heavy meal?), and an increase in cortisol release, which is the primary hormone related to stress (Taheri, 2006).

All these things decrease your capacity to act intelligently and responsibly. Just think of how many mistakes you've made, things you regret saying and doing that you know you wouldn't have said or done were you not overly tired and fatigued.

The point quite simply: Get sleep.

• Associate with positive people.

America has become obsessed with happiness. There has been a 1000 percent increase in books on the topic in the last decade (Flora, 2009). While much of what is published about the topic is pure fluff, one thing remains constant in almost every study that's been done on the topic:

Happy people associate with positive minded people. This goes both ways: People who are happy associate with positive people, and when people who are typically not as happy begin to associate with positive people, they immediately begin to be happier.

Why is this critical? Happy people handle stressful situations with much greater ease. They are less inclined to take things personally. They are more likely to be aware of the subtle things going on around them that can alert them to trouble, before it builds to the point where trouble becomes truly problematic.

All of these qualities will make you much more capable of performing at your best under pressure. They will also make it much more likely that in the moment of challenge, you will be able to recall all of your best skills and use them.

Unfortunately, it is much easier in our society to find negative people than to find positive ones. Just think of how many people love to complain about what's going on in the world, to have gripe sessions, and to tell stories of their troubles. In schools, often the worst teachers hang out together in the teachers' lounge and complain about everything imaginable. The best teachers, though, are usually together with other positive-minded teachers coming up with new and creative ways to inspire their students to aspire to greatness.

The same is true in camps. Choose to associate w it h positive-minded people. You'll be more creative, better prepared to respond at your best under pressure — and you just might find yourself becoming a happier person.

• Stay focused on your intention.

It is easy to get lost in the day-today details of a camp program and to lose sight of the larger goal of the camp experience. While each camp will have its own philosophy and mission, if your camp has asked you to read this article, it is because theirs goes something like this:

Ultimately what matters is that we create experiences and a context where we impact the lives of children and youth in ways that bring out their best and contribute to their becoming positive, responsible, conscientious citizens — not just of the society they live in, but of the earth as a whole.

Keeping this in mind will help you to prioritize what really matters.

The score of the soccer game is not as important as how the game is played. The quality of the show is not as important as everyone being given the opportunity to express themselves — especially when doing so is out of their comfort zone. Getting the kids to bed on time at night is not as important as building a sense of community where they feel comfortable and safe to be themselves, authentically.

How many great discussions in school were interrupted abruptly by a bell? How many fascinating topics became mundane and tedious because of the requirement to make it testable? Camp is about letting the spontaneous talks unfold . . . letting the quiet kid get his chance to be heard . . . letting the shy girl get her chance to shine . . . and letting the things that matter in life become the top priority.

The more you do these things, the more you will keep your mind focused where it needs to be to ensure you'll do your best work, even under duress. It is much easier to keep your attention in the right place than to try and quickly get it there when it hasn't been.

Living this way is actually easier than you may think. Doing so builds a momentum — a momentum that becomes overpowering to the forces of negativity and distraction that impede most people and lead them to wallow in mediocrity. It takes discipline. All of these things mentioned in this article take discipline. Yet this kind of discipline is also what makes the difference in the critical moment of truth — the moments when what you say or do makes all the difference and where you often only get one chance to get it right.

References
Flora, Carlin. (2009). The Pursuit of Happiness. Psychology Today, Retrieved from http://www. psychologytoday.com/articles/200812/thepursuit-happiness.

Bronson, P., & Merryman, A. (2009). NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children, Twelve. New York: Hachette Book Group.

Sadeh, A., Gruber, R., & Raviv, A. (2003). The effect of sleep restriction on school-age children: What a difference an hour makes. Child Development, 74(2), 444-455.

Taheri, S. (2006). The link between short sleep duration and obesity: We should recommend more sleep to prevent obesity. Archives of Diseases in Childhood, 91(11), 881-884.

Originally published in the 2010 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.

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