Our ComedySportz® team has just returned from a successful run at the WC! Oh, wait! You probably think I am talking about that sporting event where someone hits you in the femur and you roll around writhing on the ground as if it hurts. No, I’m talking about the one where humor hits you and roll around laughing until it hurts. The ComedySportz World Championship 2018!
Since you had that thought let’s talk about it for a bit. I was watching the World Cup coverage when they broke to a sports science segment featuring neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin. The piece was about what happens inside the brain when soccer players are stressing about taking penalty kicks. What you need to do in moments of intense pressure it turns out is counterintuitive.
So let’s crack open the brain of an improviser and see why. Not literally. Unless you are a zombie in which case ComedySportz® is for everyone so welcome to the blog! Improvisers make scenes up but we practice making things up. Our talented Major Leaguers have spent years developing their skills and those skills are embedded in the subcortical areas of the brain like the basal ganglia (where entrenched habits live like following people who still have their brains) and the cerebellum (which regulates motor movements like chewing ...). These are the unconscious, and I have heard the most delicious areas of the brain. Zombies are going to want to stay away from these areas if they are trying to get a crew to play Pokemon Go while getting fatter on grey matter.
The problem comes with the prefrontal cortex where the sense of self and the desire to comply with social norms live. It filters your behavior and keeps you being you. To bring your laser focus to a crucial moment of a match, be it ComedySportz® or soccer, you must get into a flow state where you can give your optimal performance. This requires you either nibble away at those neurons or more practically turn down the volume on your prefrontal cortex.
How do you train your brain to be able to get into a flow state? Dr. Berlin suggests improv. The same state of flow improvisers use to become their character and to hold themselves in a scene are the same skills elite athletes can use to perform under pressure. You are at your best when you are not fixated on being yourself.
I’ve talked about our amazing gaze-based communication before. This state of flow is accompanied by another phenomenon called “quiet eye.” It’s a kind of enhanced visual perception that allows an athlete to eliminate any distractions. Great athletes can summon this “quiet eye” behavior when under stress and so avoid “choking” during tense parts of a match.
Experiments showed that athletes were able to be more present and more connected to the critical moments when their gaze was sustained. For example a golfer on the ball or a basketball player on the hoop. Whatever part of the play is crucial to them getting the next point. You would think that thinking faster, and getting the adrenaline going is the solution. Nope, it was slowing the thinking down, quieting the brain and, as the saying goes, keeping your eye on the ball.
Serena Williams, a master of handling the pressure of professional tennis, echoes how improvisers aim to stay present in the moment of an evolving scene. “If you are behind in a game, it’s so important to relax, and that’s what I do – when I’m behind in a game, that’s when I become most relaxed. Just focus on one point at a time… just that sole point, and then the next one, and the next one.”