What Elite Athletes Can Teach You About Dealing With Pressure
After four penalty kicks each, Chile and Brazil was tied at 2-2.
Neymar, poster boy for the 2014 World Cup, started his lonely walk towards the penalty spot from the center of the field. He was taking the fifth penalty for Brazil and was likely deciding whether his team, the home nation, would progress to the next round. With the world watching his every move, he approached the ball, shuffled his feet, and calmly slotted the ball into the net like it was the easiest thing in the world.
Subsequently, Gonzalo Jara stepped up to take Chile’s fifth penalty. He knew that if he missed, his team were out. He hit the post. Chile was out, Brazil progressed.
One highly pressured situation, two very different outcomes. The fact is, when under pressure many people find that they are not able to produce their best performance. It is a very common experience, and failure -- when the occasion matters most -- is a very unpleasant experience.
I am always fascinated to watch how a guy handles a pressure situation. Some players become animated, some train extra hard, some withdraw -- but the true greats keep their self-belief, trust themselves and continue to work away, knowing that if the foundations have been established, good form will come. -- Australian cricketer Steve Waugh
But pressure doesn’t just occur in sport. It is part of life. In the business world, the ability to deal with pressure and perform when it matters most is a vital ingredient to an individual’s (and a company’s) short- and long-term success.
Have you ever had to present in front a group of people, scrutinizing every word, expecting the best, ready to bask in your failure? Have you ever been in a high-stakes negotiation, against people ready to pick you apart, waiting to pose that killer question? Have you ever been given a ridiculously short deadline for a ridiculously difficult and important piece of work? If so, you know what pressure is, and what it can do to you.
Sport psychology can help illuminate and inform performance in the business world. Under pressure, how do athletes make sure they get the performance they want? How do they stack the odds in their favor when faced with intense stress?
Sport psychology is a rapidly growing discipline in which scientific and well-documented psychological principles are used to help athletes, coaches and anybody else involved in sport to "be the best that they can be" when it really counts. It is not necessarily about outcomes such as "winning gold," it is about putting in the very best performances when needed and letting the score (or outcome) take care of itself.
Because athletes often have to function under extreme pressure, and often in fronts of lots of people, sport psychologists have learned a great deal about how the human ability to thrive -- when the going gets tough -- can be developed and nurtured.
Tip the balance. The secret to performing under pressure is being able to get the body and the mind into an effective state for performance. In our book, What Business Can Learn From Sport Psychology: Ten Lessons for Peak Professional Performance, we refer to this effective state as a “Challenge State.”
Research tells us that a challenge state is related to a number of positive thoughts and emotions. A challenge state enhances performance across a range of activities. Physically, your body reacts in an efficient manner, your blood vessels dilate and your heart shunts more blood to your brain and muscles so that you can think and act in the desired way. Importantly, you can get into this highly beneficial performance state by following a very simple principle: tip the balance.
When faced with pressure, you rapidly assess the demands of the situation, and weigh them against your personal resources. If you have sufficient resources, you get a challenge state -- happy days! If you have insufficient resources, meaning the demands outweigh your resources, you get a “threat state” -- not good.
Physically, a threat state means that your body is reacting in a distressed manner; your blood vessels constrict and your heart shunts less blood to your brain and muscles. This reaction reduces performance, and is associated with negative and unhelpful thoughts and emotions. Your performance suffers.
So being able to tip the balance is about increasing your personal resources to face demands. The key resources are self-confidence (your belief in your ability to succeed), perceived control (how much of your performance is under your control), and approach focus (whether you aim to do your best, or avoid doing your worst).
People who are able to get into a challenge state when under pressure show high levels of self-confidence, perceive their performance to be within their control, and focus on what they can achieve rather than what they could lose if they messed up. Most importantly, they are able to harness mental skills such as visualization, pre-performance routines and goal setting to increase their resources whenever they wish to.
I started my automatic default mechanism of visualizing myself running the race … I would hear the gun go off in my head, and start going through my paces. Then I’d visualize the whole thing again … I focused on running the perfect race in my head. -- Track athlete Michael Johnson
Be challenged. For your next presentation, interview or pitch, tip the balance in your favor by visualizing past and future success (to increase self-confidence), develop consistent pre-performance routines (to increase perceived control), and make sure your goals are set towards success, and not about avoiding failure. These are all learnable techniques embraced by many of the finest sports and business people on the planet. Use them and become the best entrepreneur you can become!
You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength. -- Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161-180