In 2016, the Cleveland Cavilers were able to beat the reigning champs, the Golden State Warriors, to become the first team to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA finals. The Cav’s ability to be comfortable being uncomfortable is a skill all professionals can benefit from learning. By examining and utilizing the same skills athletes use to thrive under pressure, business professionals can lead their teams to success.
AN INDIVIDUAL WHO IS STRESSED, UNCOMFORTABLE, AND/OR NERVOUS CAN STILL PERFORM OPTIMALLY.
Having to perform under pressure induces stress, discomfort, and anxiety which most of us have been socialized to believe that all of these are detrimental to performance. However, what top performers know is that the main differentiator between good and great performance is the ability to excel under heated conditions.
It is not the pressure and all its counterparts that are getting to us, but our interpretation about that pressure that causes one to unravel, choke or crumble. To address our ineffective interpretation of stress consider the following suggestions. First, it’s important to normalize the pressure we feel1. Secondly, it’s critical we understand that the main thing we can control is our thoughts.
Our thoughts determine how we feel physically and emotionally, in turn influencing our performance. “If we operate under a dated notion that discomfort is something to avoid, then pressure will continue to feel daunting,” states Dr. Marc Shoen1. When you are anxious about the pressure you are under and you interpret (thoughts) it as a bad thing, your performance will directly oppose your goals. By reinterpreting what we’ve been preconditioned to believe about pressure situations, we can control our emotional state and use our physiological sensations to our advantage. From what we know about having a growth mindset, we can perceive the so-called “threat” or pressured performance as a challenge or opportunity. This mentality is ideal when feelings of discomfort creep in or when we are doing something for the first time.
Evidence of being outside our comfort zones is physically apparent – sweaty palms, cottonmouth, butterflies, sweat, high heart rate, along with the urge of the three P’s (pee, poop, and puke). Health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal conducted a study showing the relationship between people’s attitude and feelings about stress and public death records. Those more likely to die were indeed stressed; but perhaps more importantly, they believed stress was harmful to their health. This finding changed Dr. McGonigal’s entire intervention practice; people who were highly stressed, but didn’t believe it affected their health, were the least likely group to die2.
… it is possible to groom ourselves to flourish under pressure circumstances, – Dr. Marc Shoen1
So now what? Once you notice the effects of pressure, your heart is beating really fast and your palms are sweaty, tell yourself – “this is my body preparing me for action, it is getting me ready.” Think back on a past, personal experience when you were [successful] (/goals-can-lead-to-more-than-outcomes/). At least one of those times remembered had a good outcome: you were pressured or felt stressed and still came out on top4. You’ve done it before you can do it again. Your mindset can change the results of pressured situations, by working for you, rather than against you.
Having your boss tell you, you have until the end of the week to put together a presentation for the CEO, responding to a media interview, or meeting with a high profile client can stimulate various forms of anxiety. For each of these work tasks, rehearsing it again and again ensures you can perform under autopilot. Doing so allows you to focus on reading the room or client instead of what you are going to say3. You can also be proactive in rehearsing what might come up (questions, concerns, interruptions) and how you will handle them. When it comes to rehearsal, you need to make the setting as realistic as possible. Running through a pitch or presentation solely in your head will not and does not produce situations of perceived pressure. To make the rehearsal realistic (and induce pressure), consider role-playing with coworkers or practice presenting to them, which can lead to alternative perspectives and effective feedback.
DELIBERATE PRACTICE + DELIBERATE EXECUTION = OPTIMAL PERFORMANCE
A cool, calm, and collected self in a high-pressure performance is a product of interpreting our physical state as helpful and a deliberate preparation for success. Utilizing both tools permits us to expend the right amount of “man power” (time, energy, focus, effort: things we can control) on the right thing, at the right time, regardless of the situation.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can perform under pressure feel free to reach out to HigherEchelon for more specific ideas.
- “Boosting Decision Making and Performance Under Pressure”: available Psychology Today, Dr. Marc Shoen, June 27, 2013
- “How to make stress your friend”: available TED talks Dr. Kelly McGonigal, June 2013
- “Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best Where It Matters Most,” Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry, February 24, 2015