Monday, October 20, 2014

Are you an elite performer?

Most Cavaliers aren't elite performers, but they can surprise you.

We’ve been doing some research on perfectionism and failure in veterinary students, and came across a fantastic paper entitled “Veterinary Students as Elite Performers” which provides insight into why the vet degree is so challenging.

But first this concept of veterinarians as elite performers. I tend to associate the word “elite” with the concept of an elite athlete. While there are many sporty vets around some of us (ahem) aren’t so gifted. Do you need to be a marathon runner or pole vaulter to be a good vet? [It would give you impressive stamina].
No. (Phew). What the authors mean is this:

“Elite performers are judged by proficiency standards, face performance consequences that may include loss of life for client or self, must have excellent coping skills for unanticipated situations, and are expected to engage their talents and competencies at specific moments regardless of external distractions or competing demands.”
You know. Emergency room doctors, surgeons, the bomb squad etc.

There is significant competition for places in veterinary schools, allowing these schools to select the best performers. You would think, then, that veterinary degree programs would be a hotbed of excellence and produce only elite performers. But it doesn’t follow.

As the authors state, “by their very nature…these same programs may be ill-suited to promote high levels of performance among these elite achievers, particularly in areas where performance is dependent on non-technical competency and personal growth.”

Human nature gets in the way. High-achieving students are, according to the literature, strongly motivated to a) maintain an appearance of POSITIVE social comparison (ie doing well compared to their peers) and b) avoid any chance of NEGATIVE social comparison (ie doing worse than their peers).

But what happens when you immerse high achievers with their academic equals? Some will have to do better or worse. Much energy is spent comparing oneself – look, she knows so much more/puts in more hours/got a high distinction. Evening questioning oneself “I am not as smart as them – should I even be here? I feel like an imposter!”

Having been through vet school, I can tell you that these thoughts can be overwhelming at times. The result is that one can adopt an “external locus of control”, ie worrying about how others are performing and how one self is performing in comparison, rather than worrying about what one can control (one’s own performance in its own right). Of course all this additional worry is detrimental to one’s own performance – so the “OMG they are so much smarter than me” effect is a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy. Again, speaking from experience, it can be a powerful force.

The authors looked at characteristics of vet students and found that in general there is a high level of anxiety in vet students, that they were inadequately equipped to deal with adversity, they placed a high value on positive social comparison (which is one reason for getting quite emotive about grades), their fear of failure resulted in passive behaviour in professional settings, they were prone to depression and procrastination, and – despite all this – self confidence levels were quite high.

As a teacher I am painfully familiar with the reluctance of veterinary students in particular to participate in class discussions, concerns about group work and helping peers succeed and resentment of peer success (documented in the study). But until I read this I never really understood why.

There’s no easy fix. The authors recommend providing very well defined learning goals and expectations to “allay the sharp fear of failure”, creating learning environments that create group achievement and creating opportunities for personal growth and development. Surely also recognising this tendency to compare ourselves is an important step.

If you’re interesting in reading more about elite performance, check out our review of Mathew Syed’s book here: 


Zenner D, Burns GA, Ruby KL, DeBowes RM & Stoll SK (2005) Veterinary students as elite performers: preliminary insights. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education 32(2):242-248.