Pushing Limits: The Power of Fear in Sports & Music

Terence Fletcher with a student in Whiplash.

The film “Whiplash” offers a profound look into the world of Terence Fletcher, a jazz instructor. You might wonder, what does a jazz teacher have to do with sports and the brain? Keep reading to find out!

Read more: Pushing Limits: The Power of Fear in Sports & Music

Whiplash and the Pursuit of Greatness

Andrew, an emerging 19-year-old jazz drummer, enrolls at the Shaffer Conservatory in New York. There, he encounters the renowned, yet terrorizing Terence Fletcher. Even with his relentless teaching methods, most musicians still aspire to be part of his ensemble, often leading them to top orchestras.

Joining Fletcher’s ensemble, Andrew quickly realizes the demanding environment created by this unforgiving master. Fletcher’s approach may remind one of a stern sports coach, pushing players to excel.

How Fear Overrides Working Memory

Intriguingly, to instill sports-specific movements, sometimes it’s beneficial to turn off working memory. Fear can do just that. Think of a charging lion; your instinct is to run, not ponder options. This reaction triggers two action hormones, Adrenaline and Cortisol, which accelerate blood flow and raise blood sugar levels respectively. Increased levels of these hormones suppress the working memory. Studies have shown that under high stress, cognitive thinking diminishes, enabling athletes to perform tasks instinctively without overthinking.

Yet, Fletcher’s aim wasn’t solely about bypassing working memory. One of the film’s pivotal scenes quotes him saying, “People truly push boundaries only when forced.” The implication? Brilliant artists or athletes, when challenged, are driven to perfect their craft to avoid criticism.

The Fletcher Approach in Sports

While “Whiplash” revolves around music, sports has its Fletchers. Think of coaches like Rinus Michels or Ernst Happel. Some coaches seldom offer praises. From both neuropsychological and psychological perspectives, there are advantages to this rigorous coaching style. Although it’s not my personal coaching preference, applying such a philosophy today remains challenging.

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