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Don't make a mistake; don't make a mistake; DOH!

Athletes at the Olympic Games will strive to perform to their potential under intense pressure this summer. Each one will be trying to win a gold medal and concentrating on not making any mistakes. However, researchers at Bangor University’s Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance (IPEP) have revealed that some performers are likely to make a mistake that they least want to.

Research at the School of Sport, Health and Exercise Science at Bangor University has consistently shown that when people are under pressure to perform well, such as the Olympic Games, they tend to commit the one mistake that they are trying to avoid.  For example, if a runner at the starting block under pressure tells herself, "whatever you do, don't leave the starting block early" will ironically prime her body for leaving the blocks early and increase the likelihood of leaving the starting block early. The act of performing a mistake that you are focusing on not making has been identified by Bangor University researchers as the Ironic Error. It is ironic because it happens due to a feedback process that normally allows us to work effectively when we are not under stress.

The most recent research confirms this finding in two remarkable ways. Firstly, athletes under pressure do not commit random errors, they commit specifically the error that they are trying to avoid (the ironic error). Secondly, athletes who attempt to mask their performance anxiety, for instance, trying to ‘look cool’, when under pressure are more likely to suffer from ironic performance effects.

There are two ways of reducing the likelihood of committing the ironic error. The first is to reduce anxiety and associated stress; and the second is to use positive statements when preparing for the competition. Rather than thinking ‘don’t hit the ball short’; the golfer should focus on the centre of the hole.

Whilst this research has found evidence that the ironic error takes place in many sports such as hockey, football and golf, the potential is that it could be taking place anywhere. The researchers at Bangor are now looking at what people are focusing on when they make an ironic error. They are doing this by tracking performers’ eye movements while they perform under pressure. The early research suggests that performers’ focus under stress is disrupted but the question is: is it disrupted specifically towards the ironic error? 

The relevance of the ironic behaviour and performance extends far beyond the sports field. Researchers at Bangor University have helped parents deal effectively with children’s behaviour by rephrasing negative parenting comments into positive statements. Parents concerned about their child eating too much chocolate could have a positive impact by asking their child to “take an apple” rather than telling them “don’t eat so much chocolate”.

Dr Tim Woodman, Co-Director of IPEP, explains:

Dr Tim Woodman, Co-Director of IPEP (Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance)Dr Tim Woodman, Co-Director of IPEP (Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance)“Ironic errors can happen to sports men and women under stress. The things you want to do demand working memory space from your brain. This is called the operating process; this process allows us to focus on what we want to do but it does require some effort and we have to consciously focus on doing these things (e.g., aim at the bottom corner in a football penalty).. The things you don’t want to do are taken care of by the monitoring process; this process keeps an eye out to make sure that we don’t do what we don’t want to do; in everyday life we don’t have to think about these things.

When we are not under stress, these two processes work very well together and we are able to do what we want to do. When we are under stress, however, our anxiety takes up some working memory. This depletes the operating process which focuses on what we want, and makes the monitoring process more likely to emerge. In this way, the process that normally prevents us from doing those things we don’t want to do is actually responsible for us doing precisely those things when we really don’t want to do them; that is the irony.”

This is one of two pieces of research from Bangor University highlighted in the UUK Report, Supporting a UK success story: The impact of university research and sport development.

Read more about Bangor University Olympics related stories on our Mini site here:

View a short film of Tim discussing this topic on BangorTV.

Publication date: 2 May 2012