Monday, June 28, 2010

Are Most People Good at Multitasking?

Many people think they are good multitaskers, but are they really?  Actually, no.  Several studies have demonstrated that it is very difficult or impossible for most people to do two or more things at once very well, even if they think they are doing fine.

In a recent study, 200 volunteers were asked to drive in a driving simulator and concentrated on information given to them on a cell phone at the same time.  The majority of the participants did poorly on both tasks.  they were 20% slower to hit the brakes and also performed worse in responding to the information given to them over the phone.

However, the researchers uncovered a surprising discovery:  1 in 40 excelled at performing both tasks at the same time.  That's right, a whopping 2.5% of adults seem to be good at multitasking.  The author of the study, David Strayer, called these folks "supertaskers."  These supertaskers seem to be able to take on two or more things at once and do really well on them.

It's not clear if this is a skill that has only recently developed in human brains, thanks to the demands of our ever-increasing tech-culture, or if it is something that some people's brains just naturally have the ability to do.  Either way, it's still a rare skill.  You might be a supertasker, but it's a safe bet to say that the odds are against you.

Monday, June 21, 2010

8 Ways to Combat Performance Anxiety in Competition

Regardless of how we feel about it, anxiety is a necessary part of any competition situation. While it’s necessary, as it is often our level of arousal and anxiety that gives us the needed “adrenaline rush” for competition, it does not need to get the best of us. Research suggests that one of the differences between successful athletes and those that may not be as successful is in how they experience the symptoms of anxiety—elite athletes are more likely to interpret the symptoms of anxiety as excitement and the feeling that gets them “pumped”, while for less confident athletes, those same symptoms may create issues such as doubt, tension, and negative thoughts. 

For most individuals, anxiety related to competition is what we call “anticipatory” anxiety—the thoughts and worries that flood us before a situation or event.   Once the event, performance, or competition begins, that anxiety may disappear, or the level may drop.  For others, anxiety can remain throughout the entire event, resulting in increased heart rate, loss of breath, hands shaking, tension, concentration difficulties, not being able to “shake off” mistakes, and ultimately, a decrease in performance.  
There are several ways in which you can work to decrease your anxiety level in a competition situation, rather than allowing your anxiety to control you.  Here are just a few of them:

1.  Differentiate between “playing well” and winning:  Don’t focus on the outcome.  Focusing on winning increases the pressure you place on yourself and puts you in a “future” mindset.  Focus, instead, on those small things that you need to do that will allow you to perform well (“I know I need to focus on bringing my knees up in the last fifty meters”…“I need to make sure that I follow through with my shot”.) Focusing on the small things will contribute to the likelihood of creating the outcome you want:  winning.

2.  Set realistic goals to improve specific skills:  Goals should be measurable, challenging and attainable.  Vague goals such as “play well” do not offer much structure or direction.  Similarly, you don’t want them to be too easy…you want to have to work for them, but you also want them to be within your reach.

3.  Reduce uncertainty by preparing for “worst case scenarios”:  one of the biggest contributors to overwhelming performance anxiety is a lack of confidence, which can happen for a number of reasons—feeling unprepared or fearing repeating a previous mistake, for example.  One of the ways you can reduce uncertainty and increase the feeling of “being prepared” is to practice “worst case scenarios”.  Have a ‘back-up’ warm-up that you can do relatively quickly in the case you are ever short on time, for example…things happen…buses break down, matches run late,  meets run early. 

4.  Use “cue” statements to refocus:  Develop a ‘cue’ statement that you can practice as a means of helping you to regain your focus.  A cue statement should be short, personal, and positive.  It should be a short phrase that creates a visual image of the athlete you want to be, and allows you to return your focus and concentration to the task at hand.     

5.  Cognitive rehearsal and visualization:  Many athletes find that visualizing themselves successfully performing or completing a certain skill contributes to an increase in confidence, and therefore a decrease in anxiety.  Cognitive rehearsal and visualization can both contribute toward feeling more prepared.

6.  Positive self-talk:  You may surprise yourself to realize how often the dialogue in your head becomes negative when you make a mistake. Recognize critical self-talk and the mistakes or actions that trigger negative conversations with yourself, and work to challenge those automatic negative thoughts and make them positive. 

7.  Breathing:  This sounds like such a simple strategy, but it is one most often overlooked.  Taking a deep breath during competition (or before certain moments—at the free throw line, for example, or before the race begins) can often be used as an opportunity to refocus and re-center.  In the middle of stressful situations or when anxiety runs high, there is often the tendency to resort to shallow breathing, which results in even more anxiety.  Taking a deep breath may allow you a moment to use additional strategies (positive self-talk, cue statements, goal reminders) that can also decrease anxiety.

8.  Prepare properly:  A significant contributing factor to performance anxiety may be the fear of being unprepared.  If you feel confident in your preparation—for example, you know that you have taken practice seriously and consistently given your best effort—the result is often a significant level of confidence that you can “trust your training”.  

Some degree of ‘performance anxiety’ is a necessary and helpful component of competition.   However, if you can turn your worry and anxiety into positive action, you increase your chances of success. 

Dr. Nyaka Niilampti is a licensed psychologist at Southeast Psych who specializes in performance enhancement for athletes and other top performers, relationship concerns, diversity issues, and the treatment of anxiety and depression.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Violent Video Games Do Not Cause Violence in Most Children

Parents continue to ask me on a regular basis if playing violent video games will cause their children to be violent.  The answer is usually, "no."  Most kids--millions and millions of them--will have no increases in any meaningful long-term violent behavior because they played Modern Warfare 2 or other violent games.

In a recent Reuters article, one expert noted, "Recent research has shown that as video games have become more popular, children in the United States and Europe are having fewer behavior problems, are less violent and score better on standardized tests."

However, this doesn't mean that it is always a good idea to let your child play violent video games.  You have to take developmental maturity into consideration (i.e., your 7-year-old might not be ready to play Halo Reach when it comes out, but your 14-year-old probably will be), as well as your own child's unique temperament and personality traits.  Parents need to know their child and make specific judgments about whether it is good for him or her to play.  Engage your child, play video games with them--or at least show interest in observing from time to time--and talk non-judgmentally about them. 

Here are some likely risk factors for negative reactions to video games include the following:

1.   Low tolerance for frustration - If your child gets very quickly overheated and can't manage upsetting emotions well, especially when compared to other kids of the same age, then it's probably wise to limit the exposure to certain types of games.

2.  Frequent depressed or dark moods - If your child is prone to dark moods, isolation, or feelings of hopelessness. By the way, if this is true, you will probably want to consider seeking out professional help for them, as well.

3.  Indifferent to the feelings of others - Lack of empathy and lack of remorse are big risk factors that should not be ignored.

4.  Often breaks rules or promises to others - Again, you need to compare this to other children of the same age, but if your child breaks rules more frequently than his or her peers, especially big rules or does things that may negative affect other people (stealing, bullying, etc), then you will want to set some limits on certain types of gaming.

The best analogy I have heard thus far is that of a peanut allergy.  Most people aren't allergic to peanuts, but a few are.  The vast majority of kids who play video games are doing great, but a select few are “allergic.”  If you are allergic, then just don’t play or let your kids play.  At the very least, limit their exposure to too much gaming if your child has any of the risk factors.

Dr. Frank Gaskill is a licensed psychologist at Southeast Psych who works with children and their parents.  One of his specialties is helping parents understand and skillfully navigate the new technologies that are part of their children's daily lives.