How to Perform Under Pressure (Blog)

Written by Professional Academy Management and Leadership Tutor, Kathryn Knights

Imagine having the wind blasting in your face as you sail into an electrical storm, lurching over waves and hearing noises that sound like your boat is about to break in half. Add to that checking your navigation system, adjusting a sail, watching the weather – and doing all of this in a sleep-deprived state for 70 days.

Pressure, huh?

This is what you come up against if you attempt the Vendée Globe. A single-handed non-stop yacht race around the world. The race was founded by Philippe Jeantot in 1989 and is named after the Département of Vendée, in France, where the race starts and ends.

Sometimes being in the workplace can feel a bit like being in that boat too. Moments of pressure face us in the workplace with ever increasing persistence as we move up the career ladder or whenever we set our sights on a new challenge.

What can we learn from sport that will help us deal with our workplace pressure moments?

Self belief and eliminating doubt

Doubt to a sportsperson is poison. Progress is made by ignoring the evidence and having a mindset removed of any doubt. It sounds simple to say ‘believe in yourself’ but the capacity to believe things that are not true can be incredibly effective. This is essentially how the placebo effect works.

In 2009 Newcastle and Middlesbrough were due to play each other. Newcastle manager, Alan Shearer, said: ‘I have not even considered the possibility of defeat. In my mind we are going to win.’ This belief was irrational. But Shearer was not interested in basing his beliefs on past statistics, he was interested in creating beliefs that led to success. Newcastle went on to win 3-1. By expecting and vocalising a positive outcome he created the result he desired.

For people who play sport they cannot entertain the possibility of failure. Doubt makes it almost inevitable that they will fail. Thus confirming their original doubtful thoughts. And this only snowballs so that the next time the doubt is stronger.

The solution?

Mental association

Timothy Gallway, author of the bestselling sport psychology book The Inner Game of Golf suggests mental association. When you are faced with a tricky moment you associate it with an action that is simple and that you have never failed at. This strong association leaves no room in the mind to associate your tricky moment with failure. Golfers might think about picking up a golf ball from a golf ball hole. If you have a tricky presentation to deliver, at work you might think about tying up your shoelaces or just introducing yourself by saying your name.

Past positive situations

When faced with a pressure moment think back to a time when you felt calm and at ease. Take some deep breaths and focus hard on exactly how you felt both physically and mentally in that moment. Use those feelings to cut through any negative thoughts or anxious feelings.

It’s only…

When there is a perceived threat to survival we fight or fly. We’re hard wired to go into this mode because when we were hunter gathers that same state helped us to make decisions quickly and get out of dangerous situations that could have seen us get eaten!

Think of high-pressure moments as enjoyable challenges (or opportunities) that widen your knowledge and experience base. When you see the pressure as a challenge, you are stimulated to give the attention and energy needed to make your best effort.

At the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt lake City GB speedskater Sarah Lindsey would chant the following with her eyes closed and breathing calmly: ‘It’s only speed skating!’. By convincing herself that that the final did not matter she alleviated the pressure. In other words, by not feeling any pressure, there WAS no pressure.

Pre-performance rituals

Sports people thrive on rituals. Think about tennis legend Rafael Nadal, who amongst other things, carefully lines up his drinks bottles at the side of the court before every match.

By creating a ritual that you go through in the minutes before you ‘perform’ you are prevented from becoming distracted with negative thoughts. You are also signalling to yourself (and others) that you are ready to get to work.

Keep your ritual: short, include a mental component e.g. visualisation of success, include a physical component e.g. deep breathing and finish with a word or two that signals it’s time to start e.g. ‘let’s go!’.

Sailing to success

British yachtsmen Alex Thomson will be hoping to win the next Vendee Globe, which starts in November 2020, attempting to be the non-French winner.

It seems hard to believe he will be able to achieve such a feat. But by putting his mind in control of his body he will be able to break through any barriers he faces.

The same can be said back on dry land. The next time you are in a pressure moment believe in yourself, remove all self doubt and sail to success.

If you need further advice, get in touch via LinkedIn.

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