illustration of a man exploring the inside of a human head

Performance Psychology & Poker

During my career as a professional poker player I was obsessed with improving myself as a player. At the end of the day I was responsible for every aspect of my work

and I realised that there were many aspects of my life that I could change to have a positive aspect on my performance. This lead me to researching & making improvements in areas such as diet, sleep, productivity and also applying principles of sport & performance psychology to poker.

Usually when people think of psychology and poker it’s about getting into the head of your opponents. But this post is about getting inside your own head and rewiring your mind to focus on what you can control: your own performance and self-improvement.

Explaining Variations in Performance

Stress and pressure are huge factors on performance and your ability to execute skills that aren’t fully trained. I’m talking about when you’re tired, irritable or you’re in a rush or worse still you’re about to suffer a significant financial loss. You just don’t have the brain power to function properly in these moments. You do things like go to the kitchen and forget why you went there, you say the wrong thing in a stressful situation or make ‘stupid mistakes’ (read on to find out why no mistakes are stupid!). But have you ever been so tired or stressed or distracted that you couldn’t clean your teeth, or use a knife and fork? Probably not and the reason for this is that you’ve trained those skills to such a high level that you don’t need brain power to execute them.

A great way to understand this is through the example of learning to drive. When I started to learn to drive at the age of 17 I needed all my powers of concentration for every manoeuvre. With time and practice things became easier. Eventually most skills became automatic and now, over a decade later it’s like I’m doing it on autopilot. I can talk to my girlfriend (on Bluetooth) whilst adjusting the heating and making a right turn. However, when I’m driving a rented car round a roundabout in a busy city in the middle of rush hour I might try and grab the gear stick on the wrong side. Why is this?

Graph showing how performance increases with emotional arousal before tailing off at high levels

The reason is that at high levels of stress your cognitive ability is reduced or shut down completely and you are reliant on skills that are trained at the unconscious level: skills that can be executed automatically, without thinking. At low levels of emotional arousal (i.e. boredom) performance levels will also be less than optimal.

Continual Failure

I’ve failed over and over again in my life, and that’s why I succeed
– Michael Jordan

So how can we use this knowledge about the way stress & pressure affect performance?
The first thing to say is that pressure and pushing yourself to make mistakes is absolutely necessary if you want to improve. Neuroscientific research shows that challenging yourself is a necessary part of the learning process. At low levels of interest or arousal tasks are too easy or boring: not only will performance levels drop but you won’t learn anything. At very high levels of emotional arousal you are struggling really hard to manage the task(s) in hand because your cognitive ability is reduced almost completely. In the middle there’s a sweet spot where you are pushing yourself hard enough that you can perform to a good level. You will make mistakes but mistakes should be treated as opportunities to learn. These are also the times the connections in your brain are forming or getting stronger.

What is the process by which this occurs?

Well here’s a theory called the Adult Learning Model that explains how skills develop through practice and how this process is linked to the concepts discussed above:

Diagram of the adult learning model showing how skills are developedThe idea of the Adult Learning Model (ALM) is that all skills are at some point in the process of development and that any skills trained at the ‘Unconscious Competence’ level (top right) started life in the bottom right at ‘Unconscious Incompetence’ and were subsequently driven through the each step on the path to mastery. The best way to internalise this theory is to apply it to something you’re good at. Apply it to an activity such as a sport, musical instrument or something you do at work and think about how different elements of that activity (skills) fit into each quarter:

  • You’ll have some elements of the activity that you’re learning but can’t yet execute.
  • Things that you can manage if you’re not pushed too hard. You can execute them in practice but not under pressure.
  • Actions that you’ve taken so many times that they are automatic and can’t be affected by any outside influences.
  • Finally there will be skills that you’re bad at that you haven’t even become aware of yet.

Continual Improvement

The more I practice the luckier I get
– Arnold Palmer

Remember I said that all skills are at some point along the Adult Learning Model Curve? This is an important concept for a few reasons. First you have to accept that just because you executed a skill correctly once or because you understand what the right thing to do is doesn’t mean you’ve cracked it. Until you’ve practised it many, many times there are going to be situations in which you will mess it up. That’s the reality of learning and improving.

Another thing to realise about your range of skills is that some days you’ll perform brilliantly because every situation that comes up plays to your strengths. Other days your weaknesses will get exposed and you’ll get into situations where your brain buckles under cognitive demands of having to execute a lot skills that aren’t trained unconsciously. To perform consistently you need to regularly work on both weaknesses and strengths or you’ll end up with such a huge range between your best game and your worst that your performance will be erratic. This is important in sport but also in many areas of life. You want to be able to choose to play at a level that befits your ability, which is very hard to predict if you perform inconsistently.

In Summary

You’ve got to push yourself if you want to improve. Accept mistakes and embrace failure as part of the learning process. Above all, make sure you focus on continually improving both weaknesses and strengths in order to become a consistent high performer.

By following this approach to learning you’re bound to find that you’re capable of learning much more than would have thought otherwise.


Image by HikingArtist (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licences/by-sa/3.0)], via wikimedia commons

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