Performing Well in High Pressure Situations

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Why Do Some People Perform Better Under Pressure?

Why do some people perform better under pressure than others? What is it that drives some to dig deep and excel when others would “choke”?  These are questions I’m pondering this week. As thousands of Torontonians and Canadians cheer on the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Final, there is much talk about how the Raptors are a team that performs best when they are in a “do or die” situation; that the players exceed expectations when their backs are against the wall and deliver an amazing win.

I want to understand how and why some employees also do their best work under pressure.  As someone who has always been motivated by deadlines, I often need (and like) the pressure of a deliverable to push me further.  Some employees are high performing in high pressure, urgent, crisis situations while others become flustered and discombobulated.

Lessons Learned From Top Athletes

Martin Turner, a lecturer at Staffordshire University in the School of Psychology, Sport, and Exercise, says the reason top athletes can rebound from a devastating loss or come back from being in a losing situation, is it’s all about their mental game.

In an interview with Forbes he says business leaders can gain a competitive edge by using the same skills top athletes use to thrive under pressure.

Just like professional althetes who need to be able to perform in high stakes competitive situations, business leaders need to do the same when pitching high profile clients, responding to a crisis at work, or being put on the spot in a meeting with senior executives.  The top 3 lessons for peak performance are:

1. Master the mental game – leaders can develop robust psychological skills to be able to perform under pressure and help their teams fulfill their potential. Using your mind as a tool for strength and confidence will help you win in a high stakes environment.

2. Responding positively to stress – the difference between those who crumble and those who thrive under pressure is how they respond to stress. Our initial response occurs unconsciously and automatically based on our rapid evaluation of the situation. Some people are able to respond in a manner that helps their performance, known as a challenge state, while other enters into a threat state, which hinders their performance.

Turner explains, “A challenge state reflects a positive mental approach to pressure situations where our mental resources meet the demands of the situation. We endure physiological changes – like an increased heart rate and decreased blood vessel constriction – that allow blood to be delivered to the brain efficiently.  This helps us concentrate, make decisions, and have control over our thoughts and emotions. Those who don’t enter into the challenge state, enter into a threat state. During the threat state, the heart rate increases like in the challenge state. But this time, the blood vessels constrict, which means, the blood pumped from the heart remains largely unchanged. As a result, the delivery of glucose and oxygen to the brain – which is essential to peak performance – is inefficient and our ability to focus and make decisions is hindered.”

3. Avoiding Fear of Failure – worrying about failing or being concerned about making a bad decisions can impact our performance. Overthinking and falling into the “analysis to paralysis” trap can destroy our ability to achieve peak performance.  Being able to focus on the task at hand when under pressure if critical to success.  If you are worried about how you are going to perform your energies will be diverted in the wrong direction, which depletes us of resources we need to succeed.

The research shows that telling ourselves “don’t fail” actually increased our changes of failure because our brains focus on that which we are trying to avoid.  Entering into a stressful situation with a positive mental mindset leads to a challenge state. But, if you approach a tough situation with negativity, you’re more likely to enter into a threat state. “To get into a challenge state, the key is to increase levels of self-confidence, perceptions of control, and focus on success,” explains Turner.

Mastering the Right State of Mind

To get yourself into the right state of mind when going into a high pressure situation, or prepare for the unexpected scenario when you need to perform, Turner suggested using three tools:

Imagery – use imagery (or visualization) in a positive manner. Recreate past performances or rehearse future performances in your head. Be as realistic as possibly by including sights, sounds, feelings, and even smells. Visualize yourself performing well in your desired situation and repeat the process until you feel confident.

Positive self-talk – Speak to yourself in a way that will help you enter a situation feeling more positively. For example, an athlete may use three key phrases – “be strong,” “focus on success,” and “give everything,” prior to a competition – to prepare mentally for the challenge. These phrases can help you stay focused on success while keeping negative thoughts of potential failure away.

Pre-performance routines – The way you spend your time before a big performance will influence your chance of success. If you spend your time pacing nervously you may increase your anxiety levels which can threaten your ability to perform. Creating a routine that will get your head in the game helps you to be better prepared. Identify things you can do that will help you be as mentally prepared as possible.  Listening to music, relaxing, reviewing your game plan or meditating may all be helpful techniques.  Find what works best for you and then go out there and exceed expectations.

Giselle Kovary

As president and co-founder of n-gen People Performance Inc., Giselle is dedicated to building strategies and programs that help clients target, motivate and engage employees in order to increase performance and productivity. She is a sought after resource to industry leaders, having worked with 18 of the top Fortune 500 companies across North America. Over 60,000 people globally have experienced an n-gen workshop or presentation. With close to 20 years of experience in learning and development, she has devoted more than 13 years to researching the impact that generational differences have on organizational performance.

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