How to Perform Your Best Under Pressure

Mar 6, 2015
9 Min Read

Want to be the Michael Jordan of your workplace? New research shows how to perform your best under pressure.

There is no shortage of inspiring messages about how you must learn to rise above the occasion and show your brilliance under pressure if you want to be successful.

When we think of people who epitomize such messages, those who come to mind are often sports superstars like Michael Jordan. How many times did he pull out a game-winner at the buzzer?

But whether the rest of us mere mortals can do the same when we’re under pressure is the subject of a new book, “Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When it Matters Most,” by Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry.

“The biggest fallacy about performing under pressure is that you have to try harder,” Weisinger says. “But Tom Brady doesn’t have to rise to the occasion.”

In other words, it’s just another day at the office for the New England Patriot’s quarterback when he plays in the Super Bowl. There’s no pressure for him because he’s just doing what he normally does after decades of practice. There’s no need for him to be nervous because he knows he is capable of performing in that situation, Weisinger says.

To translate that into the everyday worker’s life, someone moving into a new job shouldn’t think, “Oh, now I’ve got the job, so now I need to perform,” Weisinger says. “You’ve already proved yourself. Just continue to do what you’re doing.”

Weisinger points out that research reveals that “no one performs better under pressure” and pressure undermines performance even in elite athletes and executives.

The key, he says, is that we can learn to perform up to the level of our ability so that when the pressure is on, we simply are able to move forward and do our best.

Using a survey of more than 12,000 people, including Fortune 500 executives, CEOs, Navy SEALs and Olympic athletes, Weisinger says there are several short-term solutions that anyone can draw on in an important moment, whether it’s giving an important presentation or pitching a project.

Here are some “pressure solutions” identified through research that can influence how you think about pressure moments, help alleviate the pressure or help “immunize” you against pressure:

  1. Befriend the moment. Think of pressure moments as a challenge, opportunity or fun. When he played for the Miami Heat, LeBron James was questioned about how he would handle the pressure of Game 7 of the NBA Finals after blowing the previous game against the Pacers. “There is no pressure. It is going to be fun, a great game, and I look forward to meeting the challenge,” James said.
  2. Downplay the importance of the moment. By telling yourself that your presentation “is just like any other one,” you reduce the stress of giving it before the CEO. Remember the old advice about envisioning the audience in their underwear to reduce your own anxiety? Tell yourself what you need to in order to diminish the status of your audience and reduce the pressure.
  3. Focus on the mission. Instead of thinking, “I’ve got to nail this presentation because it’s the most important one I’ll ever give,” focus on your career mission of being an excellent sales person, for example. By zeroing in on your mission, you reduce the pressure and focus on doing the things you need to do. It also helps you to avoid distractions.
  4. Play “what if.” What if your PowerPoint slides malfunction? What if the time for your presentation is cut in half? By anticipating the unexpected, you diminish your pressure and will be less rattled if something unexpected happens. That way, you’ll continue your presentation to the best of your capability.
  5. Affirm your self-worth. Clinical psychologists report that those who acknowledge their experience and skills before taking on tasks make fewer errors than those who do not. Bolstering your ego strength helps prevent you from being overwhelmed by “threats” so you can handle yourself in more stressful situations. It also helps to think back to previous successes and how you handled them.
  6. Stay positive. World War II fighter pilots who returned successfully from missions told how they believed they would return safely and stayed upbeat, no matter what they faced. “Belief in a successful outcome can prevent you from worry that can drain and distract your working memory,” Weisinger says. “Anxiety and fear are stripped from the equation, allowing you to act with confidence.”
  7. Stay in the present. When you start to feel pressure from an unrealistic deadline or from performing a task under intense scrutiny, “your chance of doing your best is improved when you focus on the here and now,” he says. To diminish pressure, think about what you’re seeing, what familiar sounds you hear and focus on your breathing.
  8. Listen to a favorite song. Ever notice how many athletes wear headphones before a competition? Top athletes report that listening to music helps distract them from anxiety, blocks out distractions and makes it easier to focus on what they need to do.
  9. Pressure yourself. You can learn to desensitize yourself to the discomfort of pressure so that it has little effect on you. Try giving your presentation, for example, in half the time, with no notes and a television blaring in the background.
  10. Grab a ball. Studies with experienced athletes found that right-handed competitors who squeezed a ball in their left hand before competing were less likely to choke than right-handed players who squeezed a ball in their right hand. Why? The left hand closing over a ball primed the right hemisphere of the brain, the part associated with fluent, automatic and largely unconscious neural pathways controlling the skill. Before a presentation, try squeezing a ball in your left hand, or clench your fist.

If your life is becoming more pressure-packed, don’t panic. With a little practice and planning, you can make small changes that can diminish that stress and deliver when it matters most.

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