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In the 1999 film, For the Love of the Game, baseball pitcher Kevin Costner uses a cognitive strategy to help him focus and pitch a winning game: clear the mechanism. In my office, I call this strategy Change the Channel and have been teaching it to kids for many years. As a former athlete, I have been interested in why some athletes rise to the occasion during intense moments while others struggle to show their ability. I have become overwhelmed during intense moments of competition myself and vividly remember having a panic attack during the first basketball game of my high school career. Right at tip off, my mouth went dry, the gym became fuzzy and I didn’t know where I was. I had waited years for that moment, but the moment overwhelmed me and I lost the ability to perform.

Over the years, I have watched the same type of reaction in my patients during high-stakes moments including: standardized tests, musical performances, athletic competitions, speech debates, etc. Some kids excelled under stress while others knew the information or skill exceptionally well but couldn’t perform when it mattered most.

The COMT Gene

A few years ago, I came across research that led me to the COMT gene and learned that it isn’t just bad luck or personality that some kids buckle under stress. It’s actually highly linked to a gene in the brain (the COMT gene) and can be genetic. So what is the COMT gene? In 2013, PBS released an article called, The Science of Stress: How Well do you Test? which simplifies the role of the COMT gene indicating you are a “Worrier” or a “Warrior.” The COMT gene has two variants – one that works quickly and one that works slower. In times of stress, the brain is flooded with dopamine.

The job of the COMT gene is to clear dopamine from the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for cognitive ability, problem solving, reasoning and planning. Too much dopamine and you have a hard time focusing and recalling information. If you have a fast acting COMT gene, your brain clears dopamine quickly, allowing you to perform to your highest potential. If you have the slow acting version, dopamine floods the brain debilitating your ability to perform.

Kids with a slow-acting COMT gene often have better grades in a classroom setting as they are able to clear stress at a more gradual rate, allowing a slight, steady dose of anxiety to be present. During test settings, however they were not able to clear dopamine fast enough and tend to underperform. Thus, you have a common scenario: a high achieving classroom student who does poorly on tests. The opposite is true for a student with a fast-acting COMT gene. The classroom environment does not provide the needed stimulation for performance so they tend to underperform in class but do exceptionally well on a test.

50% of mental health is what we come into the world with, 50% is what happens when we get here. If a child has a slow-acting COMT gene they need to do some extra preparation to be able to perform at a high level during a high-stakes event. Below is an example of an effective morning routine to reduce stress before a highly competitive event:

Morning Routine before High-Stakes Event

  1. Get up 30 minutes early
  2. Exercise when you wake up to reduce cortisol (cortisol is highest in the morning)
  3. Listen to soothing music (avoid screens)
  4. Wear headphones to stressful event
  5. Arrive right on time – not early
  6. Do not talk about event
  7. Choose a fun activity for after the event, think about the activity

I have been using this sequence for many years to help reduce stress before high pressure events. Notice, I am not focusing of feelings or the upcoming event. I am channeling energy by exercising, changing my senses by listening to music, and helping my mind focus on what will occur after the event. For more information on changing the senses, I recommend reading Flooded, which talks much more about how the brain processes stress. I also recommend teaching children about emotions early (beginning at 3 years of age) to prepare them for the stressors of life. Feeling Sards are a great way to begin laying an emotional foundation.

There’s nothing harder than watching a highly talented child be unable to perform when it matters most. I encourage you to help a child you parent, counsel or care for to create a similar routine to begin relaxing the body before dopamine hits. This will allow a greater chance of success and if it works, a child can use it time and time again. Below, I am adding a video of Change the Channel to share with a child. It even works for adults so give it a try yourself!

To showing our greatest abilities,

Allison

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