How To Thrive Under Pressure

What we can learn from elite athletes about honing the ability to perform in super stressful situations.

How To Thrive Under Pressure
[Photo: Flickr user Keith Allison]

As a child, I loved watching baseball. My favorite team was my hometown Toronto Blue Jays. In 1993, an 11-year-old me was sitting on the edge of my seat in game six of the World Series as the Philadelphia Phillies scored five runs in the seventh inning to tie the game 5-5. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Joe Carter came up to bat. He stepped up, calmly taking his practice swing, as he’d done for countless games in his career and nailed a three-run home run to win the Blue Jays their first ever World Series victory.


Carter wasn’t the most skilled batter on the team. In fact, up until that home run, he hadn’t been a particularly powerful batter in the World Series. Carter taught me an important lesson: the best athletes in the world aren’t necessarily those who are the most talented, but those who can channel their abilities while facing intense pressure.

For those of us who crumble under a time-sensitive deadline or have a panic attack before giving a presentation, the power of elite athletes like Carter to perform at the top of their game when the eyes of the world are fixed on them can seem a superhuman ability. Dr. Martin Turner, coauthor of What Business Can Learn From Sport Psychology, says athletes spend a great amount of time honing this ability to thrive under pressure–almost as much as they spend perfecting their swing or building their endurance.

He offers up five lessons us office-dwelling mortals can learn from elite athletes about surviving under pressure:

1. Keep Forcing Yourself To Do The Things That Scare You

“Dealing with pressure is similar to any physical or mental skill. It needs to be practiced,” says Turner. Instead of shying away from pressure-filled situations, elite athletes seek opportunities to face it. “The more they take them on, the more they get used to dealing with pressure,” says Turner.

Rather than turning down a project with a tight deadline because you think it will be too stressful or shying away from a public speaking opportunity because simply thinking about standing in front of a crowd makes your palms sweat, embrace these opportunities and practice performing while under the gun.

Turner says repeatedly putting yourself in a pressure-filled situation can help to build confidence and improve your performance the next time your feet are to the flame. “Getting through the situation once tells you that you can do it again,” he says.


2. Visualize Yourself Succeeding

Turner says many elite athletes practice visualization techniques to train for a big game or race. While a runner may visualize himself crossing the finish line first, when preparing for a presentation you may visualize yourself delivering your introduction clearly or responding to questions in a confident manner. Seeing yourself perform well can give you the confidence you need to deliver in reality.

3. Do a Post-Game Review

After every performance, elite athletes will review their tapes and ask themselves and their coaches what they did well and what could use improvement. Turner recommends keeping a journal of performances, marking down two positive things for every one negative. “People are very good about picking out the negatives in their performance. We want to reverse that tendency [in order to build confidence],” says Turner.

4. Hone Your Strengths

Turner points out even though David Beckham was arguably the world’s strongest free kicker, he still frequently stayed after training to practice them. “He didn’t stop practicing just because he was good at it,” says Turner. While we often think improving our performance means working on our weaknesses, Turner says honing in on our strengths can give us the confidence we need to excel when facing a pressure-filled situation.

5. Develop a Pre-Performance Routine

Wade Boggs, former Red Sox third baseman earned the nickname “Chicken Man” for eating chicken before each game. He also drew the word “chai” (meaning “life” in Hebrew) in the dirt before going up to bat. Some may call these rituals superstitions, but Turner says developing a consistent pre-performance routine helps to increase perceived control.

Completing a routine–drinking from the same cup of coffee, repeating a powerful mantra or inspirational phrase, or putting on your “lucky socks,” helps you to feel as though you’re 100% ready to take on the task at hand. For the most effective routine, build in visualization time and positive self-talk.


About the author

Lisa Evans is a freelance writer from Toronto who covers topics related to mental and physical health. She strives to help readers make small changes to their daily habits that have a profound and lasting impact on their productivity and overall job satisfaction


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