This article was originally published here on Forbes.com.
What Happens When You Sink To The Level Of Your Training?
Maybe you’ve familiarized yourself with the science, probably you’ve had an experience that it neatly sums up, and likely you’ve heard the saying: Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.
Let me dispel you of the idea that this insight is, at heart, a negative one. It’s certainly put that way (sinking seems bad!), and anyone who hasn’t trained thoroughly and consistently would probably agree that when the level of your training is low-to-none, sinking to that level can have devastating results.
But here’s the thing: That’s exactly why training smart and consistently is so incredibly important. In a crisis, sinking to the level of your training can be exactly what’s necessary to pull you through and help you succeed.
Risk is unavoidable when you’re pushing the performance envelope. There will always be uncertainty—even near catastrophes—that we have to work through. What can you do mitigate the effects of tension and anxiety that are guaranteed to arise in those moments?
Prepare again and again. Over, and over, and over.
The good news is that learning to focus on our Span of Control is a skill available to us all. Relentless preparation is all about pinpointing what you need to be able to control to make the best decisions when you’re “in the moment.” When you resolve to be constantly learning, you’re continually gathering new insights and information, leveraging your experience and training for a better outcome.
The ultimate goal of preparation and practice is to be able to operate successfully in extreme conditions. Under pressure, rising to the occasion absolutely depends on what happens when you sink to the level of your training.
As a former F-14 fighter pilot, I’m well aware that there’s a heck of a lot of practice necessary to get to the point where you can truly rely on your training.
That’s why pilots train nonstop in high-workload, high-stress environments developing coping mechanisms, techniques, and tricks—all before they even begin to take on serious challenges. The goal of all that practice is to avoid reaching the point where the brain’s information-processing capacity cannot handle the tasks required of it. You rely on your training precisely when you absolutely can’t focus on all the things at once. If your training has been targeted and consistent, you can pull through the chaos.
Think of it like this: Training is only as good as it is deeply engrained. A new learning is not going to have as much power in a crisis as an action or thought process that’s already become second nature.
When your calm self goes right out the window, when dread, overwhelm, frustration, and stress threaten to take over, your perceptual field narrows and your capacity to process new information becomes limited. Your working memory is reduced, and information recall and long-term memory are impeded. In what’s known as the “strong but wrong” effect, stress can cause you to revert to previously learned behaviors. That’s precisely when you need to be able to trust engrained behaviors that will help you get the darn job done.
What’s the best coping mechanism, technique, or trick for working through extraordinarily challenging circumstances under extreme stress?
It’s practice, practice, practice.
Not sure where to begin? Span of Control is how we can remind ourselves what to focus on in the moment, knowing that everything else is just a distraction.
Focus on the skills on which you most need to rely in stressful situations. Know what to prioritize as well as what you can eliminate—whatever goes on your “don’t do” list—in high-pressure situations.
Make your training focused and regular, so that sinking to its level becomes your greatest asset in a crisis.