(SELF-)LEADERSHIP

Yerkes-Dodson Law

Whether it’s comedians, athletes or business managers, performers are at their best when they’re in the flow: focused yet relaxed at the same time. To master peak performance for yourself, read up on the science behind the Yerkes-Dodson Law.
Goals
  • Speak and present with more confidence and presence
Tool themes
  • Presenting
  • Public speaking
  • Self-awareness

Make nervousness work for you, not the other way around.


The most successful speakers are clear, confident and relaxed. They strike the right balance between energetic, calm and focused. Psychologists call this state of mind the flow state. It’s in this state that we can achieve peak performance. When we’re in the flow, time moves imperceptibly as we become completely engrossed in our task. A speaker who is in the flow comes across as absolutely in sync and in control. But achieving this is a challenge for even the most accomplished presenter. Why is that? Let’s have a look at the biology of nervousness.

When we hear, see or feel a real (or perceived) threat, a part of the brain called the amygdala jumps into action. It triggers the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls the production of the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. The hormones are released into the bloodstream, which kicks your brain and body into survival mode. They activate the sympathetic nervous system to get your heart pumping and your muscles tensed for action – every internal function needed for “fight or flight.” This is great if you need to escape a hungry tiger, but doesn’t help when you’re standing in front of an audience.

This process also overrides the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which controls planning, impulse control, decision making, reasoning and problem solving. More primitive impulses take over the brain – a so-called amygdala hijack. This creates an inability to adapt appropriately to highly stressful situations, as Amy Cuddy, a researcher at the Harvard Medical School, puts it. In other words: You can’t keep your cool. Only once the (perceived) danger passes does the parasympathetic nervous system kick in, and we can finally start to relax.

But there can be some benefits to stress. It can make us more productive and focused – up to a point. According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, physiological or mental arousal leads to an increase in performance, but only up to a certain tipping point. After that, performance quickly drops. Great performers such as pro athletes and entertainers know that to be ready for their big moment, they need to be able to manage their energy effectively.

To get into the right zone, you need to find your individual sweet spot. People who tend to be too relaxed should do activation exercises. Those who are prone to stress need to learn strategies for how to relax. The good news is: Everyone can learn how to be more relaxed on stage with some easy exercises and modifications. Ready to add some to your repertoire? We can show you how in a coaching session.


Sources

  • Yerkes, R.M. & Dodson, J.D.: The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18 (1908)
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