That is intended to sound like a threat! I have just finished reading an important book by Santa Monica psychologist Hendrie Weisinger and performance expert J. P. Pawliw-Fry titled Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most (Crown Business, 2015).
Critical to understanding their work is distinguishing between stress and pressure. Put simply, pressure is a form of stress “in which the consequences or results matter.” Making a foul shot early in the first half when you’re in the lead is not pressure, while making a foul shot with no time left on the clock and you’re one point behind—that is pressure. Pressure is what you feel when you are doing something, or about to be doing something, that could have disastrous (or at least game-changing) results if you do not do your normal good job—i.e., if you choke.
Persons who are more calm under pressure do not perform better than their usual—they just don’t perform particularly worse than usual. Those who are not calm under pressure tend to perform worse than their usual—they choke. So, the goal is not to perform better under pressure than your usual, but to perform as well as your usual.
The primary cause of sub-par performance under pressure is distractions, whether it be anxiety over the outcome or attack planes at 3 o’clock—imagined or present distractions. The solution is to find a way to resist such distractions and to focus on the immediate goal. Some people will find this easier to master than others—the world of personality assessment has shown us that persons low on Big Five N (typically calm), low on Big Five O (typically focused on the here-and-now), and high on Big Five C (typically methodical and disciplined) will find it more natural to remain calm under pressure, as well as to use the techniques recommended in this book to resist distractions. However, the techniques listed below can also work for those high in N (tending to be anxious and pessimistic), high in O (tending to be curious, imaginative, and more easily distracted), and low in C (tending to be more spontaneous and less disciplined).
Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry suggest these 22 proven ways to stay focused and resist distractions under pressure (the wording is mostly theirs):
- Think of pressure moments as an opportunity for you to strut your stuff and maybe even have some fun—a challenge rather than a calamity.
- See this as one of many opportunities, not the last.
- Shrink the importance of the pressure moment—the more importance you place on it, the more you are likely to underperform.
- Focus on your immediate mission, as in doing a good interview, rather than ultimate or related goals, such as getting the job.
- Squeeze a ball—or some other form of isometric exercise—to dissipate the tension.
- Expect the unexpected—anticipate what might surprise you and prepare how to handle it.
- Affirm your self-worth—focusing on your strengths helps performance.
- Flash back to your previous successes.
- Be positive before and during high-pressure moments—engage in positive self-talk. (Remember the Little Engine that Could—“I think I can, I think I can, I KNOW I can!”)
- Be here and now—tune into your senses—breathe deeply and take in everything around you.
- Focus on what you can control—write off what is out of your control and build on your reliable strengths.
- Practice meditation, including relaxation, mental imagery, and mindfulness training.
- Listen to or sing a favorite song—that is why many high-performance athletes use headsets before an event to prevent more debilitating distractions—music distracts from distractions!
- Use a holistic word or image “cue” to guide performance and anchor your attention—use a word such as “smooth” or an image such as “landing safely” to undergird your performance.
- Practice experiencing pressure—like the kid on the playground pretending to be Michael Jordan with ten seconds on the clock and down two points.
- Write out your concerns about the high-pressure situation you are facing—putting it in words helps to free your working memory and prevent choking.
- Put away self-consciousness by practicing self-consciously—viewing yourself on video, for example, tends to reduce distracting self-consciousness when later under pressure.
- Create and practice a pre-routine, as opposed to a ritual—crossing yourself before a foul shot or other key event is a ritual, while engaging in deep breathing, bouncing the ball three times, and shrugging is a pre-routine. Effective pre-routines include mental activities, imagery, relaxation, positive self-talk, and some kind of arousal-inducing action (such as jumping jacks) aimed at increasing blood flow and pumping oxygen to the brain for optimal alertness.
- Slow down your responses—give yourself time to think it over before you say or do it—look before you leap. A friend once lamented that he knew his history material cold but couldn’t get more than a B on his monthly essay tests—he couldn’t get it all on paper in the time allowed. I suggested he take three minutes before each essay and compose a mind map, then write—he wouldn’t have to worry about what to write next. He began writing twice as much on his essay tests and got his A.
- Regulate your breathing—to help get calm, do deep breathing—breathe in through your nose on a slow six count filling both lower and upper chambers, then hold for a four count, then exhale on a slow six count. Repeat several times after four second intervals.
- Go first when you have the choice—you tend to perform better when you haven’t seen what you’re up against.
- Communicate your feelings to others of being under pressure—putting negative concerns into words activates the part of the brain that hosts positive emotions.
Pick one or more that suit your style and put reminders around you to keep them on your radar. If you want more explanation for any of them, give the book a read! It abounds with examples in diverse performance areas, as well as the research that backs up the 22 recommendations.