“I don’t really get involved into the whole pressure thing…” -LeBron James

In the 2011 NBA finals LeBron James was unable to deliver; critics felt he wilted under the pressure. But this year James successfully led the Cavs to victory. How is the same person able to have such different reactions to stress?

In their book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson write about an enzyme called catechol-o-methyltransferase (COMT). COMT shuttles dopamine out of the spaces between the neurons in your prefrontal cortex to stop them from getting clogged up. But not everyone has the same type of COMT. There is a fast-acting version and a slow-acting version.

In mellow situations it is best to have the slower version (dopamine levels stay closer to the optimal range). However, in stressful situations dopamine floods the synapses and those with the faster-acting version tend to perform better.

We each get two copies of the COMT gene; one from our father and one from our mother. So 50% of us have one of each type, 25% have two sets of fast-acting COMT, and 25% have two sets of slow-acting COMT. Which do you think you are?

The good news is studies show that, like LeBron James, we can all improve our high-stakes performance by applying some simple tips. For instance, a Harvard psychologist found that reading a brief article about how stress can improve pressurized performance by optimizing dopamine levels led students to perform much better on the GRE.


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