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Performing Under Pressure

How many times have you heard someone in the office say that they perform better under pressure? In sports we hear this all the time. The most famous case being Michael Jordan, who was praised by the basketball world for being level headed and more skilled in games that had higher consequences and more eyes watching. The reasons for people saying this is usually argued that the pressure drives them to make better choices on the fly in almost any situation.

However, the reality is we don’t actually perform better when under pressure. Evidence actually tells us that no one performs as well as they might if they were in a less stressful environment. Even Michael Jordan. People that stand out in those moments of pressure, like Jordan, are usually able to navigate the environment because they are able to dull the negative effects of pressure (but they’d still perform better without it). In cases like MJ, the rest of the team performs so much worse under the pressure so that it miraculously looks like he is the only person who can handle it. In reality, his baseline just started at a higher level.

According to “Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When it Matters Most” (Weisinger & Pawliw-Fry 2015) the follow things can help increase your baseline level of mental consistency in high pressure environments like competing in sports, attending high consequence meetings and interviews as well as navigating through stressful life events.

1. Focus on the task and not the outcome.

Focusing your mental power on the outcome of the game/event is not helpful. In fact, it can be quite distracting. Trying to centre your mind on the moment while leaving the idea of the future aside for the moment, can help to reinforce the idea that you need to focus in on the task at hand and will ease your worrying of the desired outcome.

2. Mentally prepare and plan for the worst In your down time, think about your strategy.

Come up with ideas to help you even if the worst case scenario happens. Replay it over in your mind. Drill techniques that would be answers to situations and have an action plan – “if this happens, then what?”. Becoming proficient at being a problem solver will ease your mind and your body when the moment of pressure hits you in a sporting competition, in a high pressure presentation or a job interview.

3. Focus on the factors that you can control.

As an athlete there are many things that we can control. We can control our technique, our speed, our body language. What we can’t control is our opponents next move or the crowd screaming from the sidelines. In the office we can control our behaviour, our work ethic and our determination to achieve a goal. We cannot control the actions of others or their own motivations for doing something. Focus in on only the things that you know you can change and control. This will ease your mind and put your head in the right place. Use the tools that you have mastered and drown out the excess noise by understanding that you are only responsible for you.

4. Think back to past success.

Try and remember back to when you were in this situation before. How did you handle it to get the job done? Another benefit of doing this is that it has been shown to increase confidence in high performers and eases doubt in their minds. Use this tool of self-reflection to remind yourself of your past success and try to remember how it felt to overcome it.

5. Slow down your thought process.

When it starts heating up on the court or the boardroom, it’s likely that your mind is going to start racing a hundred miles an hour. When you’re trying to understand the situation and respond correctly, it can get overwhelming and cause you to panic or freeze in the moment. Try and practice mindfulness techniques during training and also when you’re resting. Try and focus on the task at hand and nothing else. Put everything else out of your mind and go into autopilot. Becoming efficient at using mindfulness has been shown to increase mental toughness and consistency and will help you stay controlled under pressure.

6. Think of these moments as fun challenges and not as a life or death threat.

The idea of creating fun challenged in your mind is the idea that we want to try and control our body and mind when the adrenalin hits. The problem with adrenalin is that it sends very strong signals to our bodies and sometimes it gets a little out of hand. Our blood is pumping, our pupils are dilated, our mind is racing, we start shaking and occasionally our body can’t handle it. You’ve likely heard of “flight or fight” mode, and this is exactly what we want to control. We want to utilise adrenalin for a good, purposeful reason, so we need to try and tell our bodies that this is not a life or death situation, and we cannot run from it.

The easiest way to do this, is to try and see the situation as a challenge that is fun and enjoyable. Tell ourselves that it is not life and death and we have all the tools necessary to get the job done.

“Seeing pressure as a threat undermines self confidence; elicits fear of failure; impairs short term memory, attention and judgement; and spurs impulsive behaviour”

The most important thing that you should take away from this is that performing at your peak will never happen under pressure. Likely, you will be better in practice in the comfort of your training environment. What we can change, however, is the baseline in which we start at (by improving techniques so that when under pressure you can execute them effectively) and the way in which we control our mind and bodies when faced with these situations.

Ally Orr is one of our Senior Trainers based in Sydney. See her profile here.

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