You and your dressage horse trained brilliantly all week, but when it came to the weekend competition it all fell apart.
What went wrong? Why did your composure fly out the window with your flying changes, and your piaffe pack up entirely?
Perhaps it was a case of performance anxiety.
Researchers have investigated why the human brain makes you slip up when anxious.
As anyone undergoing any kind of test or assessment will know, the anxiety of being watched can have a disastrous effect on performance.
Neuroscientists at the University of Sussex’s Sackler Centre and Brighton and Sussex Medical School have delved into the brain network system that causes us to falter.
Dr Michiko Yoshie and her colleagues, Professor Hugo Critchley, Dr Neil Harrison, and Dr Yoko Nagai, pinpointed the brain area that causes the performance mishaps during an experiment using functional magnetic resonance neuroimaging (fMRI).
Previous research has shown that people tend to exert more force when they know they are being watched. For example, pianists unconsciously press keys harder when they play in front of an audience compared to when playing alone.
In the new study, published in Scientific Reports, participants’ brain activity was monitored while carrying out a task that required them to exert a precise amount of force when gripping an object.
During the experiment, they viewed video footage of two people whom they believed were evaluating their performance. They then repeated the task while viewing video footage of two people who appeared to be evaluating the performance of someone else.
Participants reported that they felt more anxious when they believed they were being observed. Under this condition, they gripped the object harder without realising it.
The increased force output under such circumstances could improve the performance of motor tasks that mainly demand power or speed, such as weightlifting or running, but would impair the performance of tasks demanding fine motor coordination.
Scan results showed that an area of the brain that helps us to control our fine sensorimotor functions – the inferior parietal cortex – became deactivated when people felt they were being observed.
In fact, this part of the brain works with another region – the posterior superior temporal sulcus – to form what neuroscientists refer to as the action-observation network (AON). The AON is involved in “mentalisation” processes by which we infer what another person is thinking, based on his/her facial expressions and direction of gaze.
The posterior superior temporal sulcus conveys this information to the inferior parietal cortex, which then generates appropriate motor actions. If we feel our observer wants us to do well, we will perform well. But if we pick up negative cues, our inferior parietal cortex is deactivated and our performance falls apart.
“We realised that AON might also be related to performance anxiety because when being scrutinised, we tend to care about how the audience is feeling about us and our performance,” Yoshie said.
For those with extreme performance anxiety, she said there has been a substantial advancement in brain stimulation techniques such as the transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial direct current stimulation, which could activate desired behaviour.
There are also now various types of neurofeedback training, which can help people to learn how to control their own brain activity.
“It’s important to believe that the audience is supporting you and wishing for your successful performance.”
So, what could a rider who tenses up in the competition arena do? One approach would involve taking up opportunities to perform in front of your supporters and friends, who could offer lots of applause and positive feedback.
“Such experience would help you to induce a desirable activation pattern in your brain and boost self-confidence,” Yoshie said.
Dr Yoshie is now at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Tsukuba, Japan.
Yoshie, M. et al. Why I tense up when you watch me: Inferior parietal cortex mediates an audience’s influence on motor performance. Sci. Rep. 6, 19305; doi: 10.1038/srep19305 (2016).
The full study can be read here.