March Madness Mayhem: Analyzing Performance Under Pressure

March Madness has arrived, which means my alter ego – the one that worships Coach Roy Williams, mumbles curses against Zion, and says words like “offensive rebound percentage” – has officially been unleashed.  As I fervently check my NCAA bracket and get misty eyed at the mention of graduating senior Luke Maye, I am keenly aware that the success of my bracket and any team’s ability to ascend to the Championship comes down to how well players perform under pressure. This leads me to ask an important question for the sake of science (let’s face it, it’s really for the success of my bracket and perhaps yours): What is it that allows humans to execute a series of learned behaviors at peak performance under stress?

Fascinatingly, sports and athletic endeavors of excellence allow us to ask this question and make observations in a relatively controlled environment. Let me take you back to a crushing but incredible memory for many Tar Heels.  It was a dark night on April 4th, 2016 and my boys (during the month of March I refer to the Tar Heels as “my boys,” bear with me) were playing Villanova in the Championship game. With seconds to the finish, my main man Marcus Paige shot a three-pointer and the CROWD WENT WILD. Three seconds later, Villanova responded and dreams were crushed, babies were no longer to be named Marcus Paige, and bonfires were doused. HOWEVER, THAT IS NOT THE POINT. Within the last ten seconds of this harrowing game, two teams had the ability to hit three pointers within mere seconds of each other in the Championship game. Was it nerves of steel? Was it sheer grit and determination? Was it just basketball destiny that we were to fall so that we may rise again in 2017? As I thought back to Marcus, I reflected on what many psychologists and behavioral scientists consider a critical facet in performance: balancing eustress and stress.

Frankenhouser first introduced the term “eustress” in 1980 and denoted it as a positive type of stress, the kind of motivation that enables you to use that nervous feeling or mild anxiety and channel it into positive outcomes. Eustress differs from the negative form of stress (also referred to as distress) in that it is a low underlying level of stimulus rather than acute and sudden stress. How does this act of balancing eustress with distress actually work? So as it turns out, that low to moderate levels of controlled stress (e.g. consistent exposure to high stakes games but at regularly paced intervals) can really help mediate this balance. In addition, eustress is most present when there’s considerable joy experienced by the expended effort (e.g. you really love the game). Let’s think back to our scenario, both UNC and Villanova are big-name teams. These so-called “blue-bloods,” are the schools that consistently make it to the top 32, top 16 or even the Elite Eight year after year. This means that there’s substantial exposure to this environment over the course of a player’s career, and more importantly, senior players pass down these experiences to the incoming recruits. Both teams also have notorious rivals that push and magnify even regular season games to be of tournament calibre. So, in part this explains how both of these teams were able to place outstanding shots with 10 seconds left in the game. However, you may say, is that the only factor here? Did Marcus Paige truly abandon all distress in the face of Villanova to bring us back on the scoreboard? I believe in addition to moderate levels of consistent NCAA exposure, there was an important secondary factor in play for Marcus.

If we really break down how I think peak performance is achieved, we have to consider how fear and anxiety are accepted and internalized. We just discussed eustress and practice theory, in which you overcome stress and channel it into eustress with consistent hard work and exposure. But what if you can’t do that? What if the acute distress is truly overwhelming? I would like to bring in a non-basketball example for a brief moment to really drive this point home (yes, I will use basketball puns all day err’day in this article). Recently, National Geographic released a documentary on Alex Honnold free climbing El Capitan (the death tower of granite in Yosemite Valley) without any ropes or gear. Most people would cringe at the mere thought of this venture and some, myself included, may just pass out from the dizzying idea of plummeting 3000 feet. However, Alex did his climb successfully and with an immeasurable amount of calmness. When interviewed, he stated that it wasn’t the lack of fear of dying that allowed him to perform these feats. Rather, it was an acceptance and compartmentalization of that fear and the acceptance of the outcomes of failure. I think what makes peak performance under stress truly possible is a combination of training along with internalization of fear. What’s most important in a stressful situation is acceptance of distress, taking control of it, visualizing the possible outcomes, and being okay with moving forward. That said, it’s very well possible that in those final moments of that game against Villanova, Marcus Paige saw the final seconds of his college basketball career and accepted that situation, found joy in it, and made a career-defining move.

The Tar Heels and March Madness have taught me a lot of things, but above all, they have taught me a lot about how stress and anxiety can be channeled into productive outlets and how to rise above the pressure to try to do your best when you can. As Coach Roy Williams would say, “That’s a pretty daggum good basketball team.” Yes, I did watch a 1-minute sports clip of all of Roy’s choice game interviews to come up with that for this article, but he’s right because they are able to play well under pressure. I can’t wait to see how March Madness will conclude this year and look forward to see who will rise to become champions.

Peer edited by Keean Braceros.

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It helps to be flexible: disordered proteins in biological stress response

Imagine you are working on a project with a large group of people, all with different personalities and responsibilities. Your group was just informed that something important to the progress of the project went terribly wrong. Some people in the group start to panic, which causes other people to panic. There is no defined leader for this group project but you tend to take the lead during stressful times, so you quickly step up to the plate. You know that to get this project back on track, you first need to calm everyone down so that they can refocus on the tasks at hand.

Now try to imagine that instead of people, you and your group are large molecules composed of long chains of amino acids, a.k.a. proteins, and the group project is maintaining the life of your cell.

Much like a dollar bill must undergo many intricate folds to become an origami elephant, chains of amino acids must go through several steps to form a well-folded protein. Top image created by Chris Pielak

Proteins make up many important biological structures (such as hair, nails, and connective tissues) and carry out most chemical reactions in cells (such as converting food into energy or light into sight). For a long time it was thought  that proteins only function once they have “folded” into a highly-ordered shape, similar to how a flat sheet of paper folds into a smile-inducing origami elephant. The unique shape of a protein is dictated by chemical interactions between the amino acids that make up the protein as well as interactions between the protein and water. When drastic changes take place in the environment of the protein (i.e. during cellular stresses such as extreme heat, dehydration, or acidification), these important interactions are disrupted, which can cause proteins that are usually well-folded to temporarily unfold and become inactive. If such a protein remains unfolded for too long, temporary inactivity can become permanent as the protein becomes tangled up with other unfolded proteins in a process known as irreversible aggregation. Under extremely stressful conditions, a significant portion of the proteins in a cell can unfold and irreversibly aggregate, ultimately leading to cell death. So let’s keep all our proteins nicely folded, shall we?

Not so fast! In the past twenty years, the idea that a protein must be folded to function has been challenged by an up-and-coming group of proteins known as intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs). As the name suggests, IDPs are defined by a distinct lack of a stable, well-folded structure, much like a single strand of spaghetti in a pot of water.

This cat knows spaghetti makes you feel better when you’re stressed out.

Interestingly, organisms across all domains of life have been shown to use IDPs to deal with environmental stresses. Many of these stress-response IDPs are “conditionally disordered”, meaning they can transition into or out of a more ordered state in response to an environmental cue. Given that IDPs are used to being in an unfolded-like state, it kind of makes sense that they can “survive” many of the environmental stresses that typically well-folded proteins can’t. But besides persisting through stressful times, how do IDPs help cells survive extreme environmental stresses? One emerging hypothesis is that stress-response IDPs work by morphing into a shape that can stick to partially unfolded proteins before irreversible aggregation can occur, thus making it possible for stress-sensitive proteins to refold after the stress goes away. In support of this idea, recent studies showed that the bacterial acid-sensing protein HdeA becomes disordered in acidic conditions, and it is in this disordered state that it can stick to partially unfolded proteins and prevent aggregation. Similar modes of action have been proposed for IDPs involved in heat- and dehydration-response as well.

So, just like you in the hypothetical scenario described at the beginning of this post, some IDPs keep the group project (the life of the cell) on track by pulling aside the easily stressed out group members (highly-ordered, stress-sensitive proteins) and calming them down a bit so that once the stress has subsided, everyone in the group can refold and get back to work.

Peer edited by Giehae Choi.

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