Performing Under Pressure

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Do you believe that you perform better under pressure? Do you do your best creative thinking under a severe pressure deadline? Do you worry about a child or colleague that chokes under pressure?

I had just tuned in to a Wharton Business School interview of Dr. Hank Weisinger, a world-renowned psychologist and expert in the field of pressure management. The New York Times best-selling author was drawing on 10 years of research on 12,000 people — including elite athletes, corporate executives, and Navy SEALs — to describe how he handled one of his own pressure moments, a crucial boardroom presentation. Moments before entering the boardroom, Weisinger simply told his client, “I’ll do my best.”

The Myth Of Performing Under Pressure

I thought his response was rather… lame. But I’m glad I kept listening, so I could discover I’d been buying into the myth of “clutch performance” — when a person magically rises to the occasion and performs better than ever before, simply because of the pressure he or she faces.

“You’re not going to generate super human performance when you are under pressure. The best you can do is your best – you can‘t do magically better than you have before. And because of the ubiquitous negative effects of pressure, it is more realistic to think that the best you will be able to do under the circumstances is approximate your true capabilities,” contends Weisinger.

According to Dr. Saul Miller, a psychologist and performance specialist, “Some people don’t see pressure as an exclusively negative force. They say they enjoy pressure and think of it as a positive creative force.”

I immediately thought of my husband, who describes his 10-year career flying Air Force 2 as “outrageous.”

“Some pressure is not only enjoyable, it’s essential,” continues Miller. “In physiology and medicine, pressure is a necessary part of normal function. In the sexual response, the buildup and release of pressure is an integral part of the pleasure of orgasm. In the circulatory system, it’s pressure that enables the blood to circulate through the arteries and veins. What is undesirable and dangerous is to have repeated and prolonged periods of excessive pressure.”

What is it about pressure that can sabotage our efforts when we need to do our best? In Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most, Weisinger identifies three components that elicit our anxiety and can cause us to underperform in high-pressure situations:

The outcome is important to you
The outcome is uncertain
You feel you are responsible for, and are being judged on, the outcome

Pressure Traps

Not only is pressure part of the human condition — so it’s not going away — but Miller argues that people need a moderate degree of pressure to stay focused and perform at their best. But what about some of my clients, I wondered, that consistently perform at a high level, but never escape their own private pressure trap? They’re always feeling the heat… even when the weather is cold.

We all have our personal brand of pressure. In the early days of my practice, I often felt, along with excitement and eagerness, a flush of anxiety before a new client arrived. My clinical supervisors had told me that my diagnostic skills were good, but … would I be able to quickly understand what was (really) going on with a person I’d never before laid eyes on? Would I be able to quickly form a “therapeutic alliance?” A counselor typically gets just one shot to get that connection established. On top of that, I had decided — from the very start of my private practice — to not accept insurance, so my clients were paying out-of-pocket for my services.

I didn’t realize at the time that I was engaging in two cognitive distortions that Weisinger’s research identified as particularly harmful to our ability to perform under pressure:

Magnifying the singularity of the event: This is my one and only chance and I don’t want to blow it.

Magnifying the importance of the event: This is the most important event of my career.

The ability to understand and manage pressure is a key life skill. Thanks to the latest studies from neuroscience and frontline research by those like Weisinger, we now have a wealth of evidence-based solutions that help improve mental focus and emotional control, as well as calm the physical distress associated with pressure.

Pressure Solutions

I remember very clearly the day when I let myself relax a bit, really connect with the person in front of me, and … think. Confirmation came in the form of a seismic shift in my effectiveness with clients.

Looking back, I realize I had stumbled upon one of Weisinger’s pressure solutions: Instead of seeing high-pressure situations as threatening, see them as a challenge or opportunity. I certainly didn’t thrive on pressure, but I did thrive on challenge — which, to me, translated as interesting, creative, and fun.

Know your Personal “Pressure Points”

Some people freak out when they’re in the spotlight — job interviews, presentations, solo performances. Others are unnerved in interpersonal situations — difficult conversations, networking events, collaborative projects.

Once you gain insight into how pressure affects you and puts you at risk, you can focus on specific techniques and methods designed to reduce your anxiety, put yourself back in control, and restore your sense of confidence.

Balance Deep Pressure with Deep Relaxation

When my golf instructor introduced competitive drills in our group clinics, I immediately sensed the tension. “You need to get used to performing under pressure during practice,” he explained. “It will prepare you for the pressure of playing on the course.”

Next, counteract imposing pressure on yourself with learning to consciously relax yourself. Think of this as a way to inoculate yourself against pressure moments by decreasing daily anxiety and stress. The “structured relaxation” pre-race routine used by 14-time Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Phelps started when he was 12 years old, with his mother Debbie guiding him through a progressive relaxation every night before bed. Eventually he could do it by himself and ultimately could reach “a deep state of relaxation on the count of two” before a race.

Be a Control Freak — Meditate

Once you can consciously relax yourself, you can begin to cultivate a form of relaxed mental control called “mindfulness” — your ability to pay attention in a relaxed way — so you’re less distracted, better able to focus on what’s important, and respond in a nonreactive way.

A pressure moment can undermine our performance when we focus on factors we can’t control. The mental discipline of mindfulness helps you focus on what you can control — and not be distracted by what you can’t.

One of Weisinger’s pressure solutions is Be a Control Freak. “To execute this pressure solution effectively, you have to be able to know (a) what you can control, (b) what you can’t control, and (c) when your focus starts to shift to things you can’t control, so you can snap it back.”

You may want to try combining these pressure solutions. No pressure — just something to think about.