PERFORMANCE UNDER PRESSURE
Performing at your best when the pressure is on and the stakes are high
If not held in check, our inner
critique can sabotage performance, and doubt
become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
The room is silent. All eyes turn to you. You’re “the closer” in a high-stakes presentation that your team has been working on for months. Yet, your mind goes blank, and your voice quivers slightly as you reach for your notes in search of your opening point. You’re a skilled presenter with years of experience; why are you suddenly at a loss for words?
The higher the stakes and the more infrequently you find yourself in the situation, the greater the risk of choking. The external demands or pressure of the situation overwhelm your personal resources to cope with it.
Physiologically, the body shifts into protection from danger mode—releasing stress-related hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Working memory becomes impaired and you have trouble processing information. The brain tends to focus on negative emotional experiences and overthinks behaviors that are usually second nature.
A choke can also happen even when the pressure is constant and the ability to use coping resources becomes depleted.
Sian Beilock, the world’s leading expert on the psychology of choking, doesn’t believe there are chokers and non-chokers. She explains, “Anyone can choke under pressure. What oftentimes happens is that we feel nervous or anxious about our performance, and we’re not always confident in our ability to succeed.
“As a result, we try to control what we’re doing and the outcome, but this can derail what would otherwise happen on autopilot. The things we’ve learned and practiced over the years that are second nature are lost in the moment. That’s when choking happens.”
According to Beilock, “Once anxiety disrupts your autopilot, it doesn’t automatically come back on. Sometimes you must work to get it back and it can take time to get there. It can be nerve-racking when you’re struggling to get back on track.”
The good news is that there are proven behaviors and mindsets that can help you avoid choking and better manage the experience if it happens to you:
Reframe anxiety as excitement. When the pressure is on and you’re feeling anxious, the common wisdom is to try to calm yourself down. The problem is that it’s difficult to find strategies that are effective.
In her study Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement, Harvard Business School researcher Alison Wood Brooks suggests that moving from an anxious state to a calm one is too big a leap. Her work shows that the smarter strategy is to make the more achievable mental shift from nervousness to excitement—two feelings that are very close on the spectrum of emotions. The research shows that people who reframe anxiety into excitement tend to trigger upward motivation and improve their performance as a result.
You may also find it useful to consider what your anxiety really represents. People tend to jump to the conclusion that anxiety is bad and that it signals they lack confidence, are unprepared, or will fall flat on their faces. Those uneasy feelings can also be interpreted as a sign of how deeply you care about the outcome and that your body is gearing up for the challenge ahead. Just the act of reappraising can take some of the stress off and lead to better performance.
Don’t heighten the pressure. People often add to their stress by leaving preparation to the last minute. This is based on a false belief that we do our best work under pressure. Study after study shows this is not true. People under time-pressure-induced stress make far more errors of omission (not doing or including something they should have) and commission (doing something but doing it incorrectly or poorly).
Tim Pychyl, psychologist, and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, explains: “Stress created from time pressures makes it harder for your brain to function, weighing it down with a cognitive load that makes it difficult to learn and translate ideas into meaningful information.”
Pay attention to how you talk to yourself. When the pressure is on, it’s common to resort to catastrophizing. The brain seems to gravitate to the worst that could happen: What if I blew it and focused on the wrong issues, what if I can’t answer the questions they ask, what if I forget my key points, what if our competitor’s presentation is better than ours? If not held in check, our inner critique can sabotage performance and our doubts become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The key is shifting the conversation going on in your head. Most of us speak to ourselves in a way we would never talk to others. Imagine that your son or nephew has a big divisional soccer match coming up and he’s nervous. Would you raise his doubts by saying, “Maybe your coach doesn’t like you, what if you miss that goal, or the other team is better than yours?”
Be as supportive to yourself as you would be to others. Instead of, “What if I blew it and focused on the wrong issues, C say “I’ve done my homework and know what is important to the audience.” When facing pressure, elite athletes rely on healthy self-talk to handle their mental and emotional challenges. The same techniques can work for you.
Reflect on past successes. Pressure moments are filled with uncertainty. That’s what builds the anxiety. Focusing on past triumphs will build your confidence. As part of your preparation, identify any concerns and obstacles that may get in the way, and then think about how you’ve effectively dealt with these challenges in the past.
For example, let’s say you get butterflies and sweaty palms before a big presentation, but you know from experience that once you get started, you’re confident and in control. Remind yourself that this is normal for you, and you’ll be okay. If you’re questioning whether your presentation is on point, reflect on situations when your listening skills and strategies helped you succeed.
The mantra “I’ve done it before, and I will do it again” can work wonders in calming anxiety and increasing self-assurance.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. As humans, we’re wired for comfort. Our natural inclination is to stick with the status quo and resist the unknown so we can stay comfortable. It’s tied to our ancestral drive to survive.
Feelings of discomfort fuel the anxiety and that can lead to choking. The dilemma is that discomfort and growth go hand in hand. You can grow only if you’re willing to feel awkward and learn something new. Rather than interpret discomfort as something to resist, recognize it as an opportunity for growth.
You can build your tolerance for discomfort by learning something you know nothing about, doing something that makes you uncomfortable, or putting yourself in an unfamiliar environment. The experience will help you build skills to deal with future situations outside of your comfort zone.
Practice under the conditions in which you’ll perform. You can rehearse a presentation in your office multiple times. While you’ll know your material inside and out well, it won’t prepare you for the feelings that come up when making a high-stakes pitch in front of a live audience.
Some of the best chefs in the world choke in venues like Top Chef or Iron Chef, not because they’re not phenomenal cooks, but because they can’t perform under event conditions.
The skills of presenting to an audience are very different from the skills required to develop strong content. To the extent possible, practice under conditions that replicate the situation in which you need to perform.
For example, bring colleagues into a room, stand up front, use your visual aids, and deliver the presentation. Get their feedback on your delivery, what’s working, and any points that need to be clarified.
The mantra “I’ve done it before,
and I will do it again” can work wonders
in calming anxiety and increasing self-assurance.
Have a pre-performance ritual. A study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes found that performing a ritual decreases anxiety and improves performance, especially when those actions are described as a “ritual.”
Twenty-two-time Grand Slam tennis champion Rafael Nadal is a believer. Before a match, he always makes sure his chair sits perfectly perpendicular to the court. He always puts two drink bottles in front of the chair to his left, one behind the other, aimed diagonally at the court. Before he serves, he uses his right hand to touch the back and front of his shorts, then his left shoulder, then his right, then his nose, left ear, nose, right ear, and last, his right thigh.
In his book Rafa, he describes his routine as “placing myself in a match and ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head.”
Rituals work because they give us a sense of control in situations beyond our control. They also help focus attention, limit distraction and get into a confident mental state.
There is no immunity against choking
Experienced professionals often think choking won’t happen to them. The fact is that high performers are more vulnerable. Their cognitive horsepower and tendency to overthink and overanalyze high-stakes situations can disrupt their autopilots. When people get nervous, they start making conscious, step-by-step efforts rather than automatic ones. As a result, the brain does not work as efficiently, and performance suffers.
Choking can happen to anyone at any time. Using the strategies outlined here will help you minimize the risk and perform with a high level of confidence.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com). CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies and brokers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.