Updated: Jan 3, 2021
In all areas of our life we frequently have to perform under pressure. Different people react in different ways to high pressure situations. And unless you have learnt specific coping systems, the increased adrenaline can cause you to function way below the best of your abilities. Symptoms vary from person to person, but an inability to concentrate, a feeling of fogginess in your head, and forgetfulness are common side effects.
In business we are rarely taught systems to help us cope with these types of high pressure scenarios, but it is important that we learn to deal with it. This article will explain three easy, but effective, ways to not only cope with this pressure, but use it to your advantage and become someone who can thrive under the most demanding of conditions.
Psychologists have been teaching effective coping mechanisms in sport for many years. When I was an undergraduate studying Sports Science, the psychology of sport was slowly becoming a mainstream discipline.
While most sports have now accepted the importance of the mental side of winning, perhaps the sport that has best embraced the psychology of success is golf...and one of the finest examples of the winning mindset was during the final day of the 1996 Golf Masters in Augusta, Georgia.
During this final, Greg Norman was the overriding favourite going into the final day with a six shot lead. His closest opponent, Nick Faldo, was the more decorated golfer, but a lead of this magnitude was an almost impossible mountain for Faldo to climb. However, from very early on in the match Greg Norman started to "choke". Slowly his lead slipped away and by the 16th hole it became almost impossible for Norman to win. After 18 holes of golf, Nick Faldo eventually won making this the greatest comeback in Masters history.
Much has been written as to what caused Norman to perform so badly during the final, and of course it's impossible to know exactly what happened. Nevertheless, there are three very important lessons we can learn that can be used in any high pressure situation, whether that is on the sports field, at home or in business.
Rule Number 1 - Try To Win
In competition, you can adopt one of two mindsets. You can either play to win, or you can play not to lose. In the case of Greg Norman at the 1996 Masters, he was playing not to lose. Nick Faldo, his opponent, had a formidable reputation. He was great under pressure and rarely made unnecessary mistakes. Faldo had already won two Masters, whereas Greg Norman had not yet hit the top spot. This put Norman under immense pressure, and it became a competition of the mind rather than skill. This pressure resulted in Greg Norman entering the final day in front. But rather than trying to win, he was trying not to lose. He was more interested in observing what his opponent was doing than concentrating on his own game.
When you are in the mindset of trying not to lose, it will often result in you never performing at your best. Your goal is to just be better than your competition, rather than being the best you can. This mindset can be seen in many business settings. It occurs when a rival launches a new product or feature, or opens an office in a new location. Panic breaks out to do something similar as quickly as possible so you can compete with your rival. This is playing not to lose. You are looking at what your competition is doing and immediately reacting to their actions. This means you will often be one step behind and often playing catch up.
Research has shown that in sport, individuals and teams do much better when they create strategies specifically to beat an opponent, rather than just survive.
This does not mean that they look past their opponents, but they are going in with the confidence that they can win. They believe that they deserve to not only be in the same division as their opponent, but in the next levels above, and are constantly aiming as high as possible.
When you play not to lose, your aim is to be just a little bit better than your opponent. When you play to win you are trying to be your best at all times and make it to the top.
One important note to make is that it is still important to check out your competition. You shouldn't simply concentrate on your own abilities. Adapting your strategy to effectively challenge competition can be a wise move. But, it is important to do this with the purpose of achieving your own goals rather than simply reacting to what a competitor does.
Rule Number 2 - Concentrate On The Process Rather Than The Outcome
One aspect of Nick Faldo's game that made him such a good player was his unfaltering ability to play error-free golf. This allowed him to perform consistently at the very highest level of stress. What would make most of us crumble under the pressure of the occasion, was comfortable to Faldo. And his ability to ignore the pressure was largely down to how he approached each shot.
The adrenaline that is released as a result of a high pressure situation can cause overstimulation in the brain and the inability to focus properly. So rather than concentrating on playing the perfect shot, Faldo would focus on the process of playing the perfect shot. He would concentrate on the mechanics of his swing; trying to implement perfect technique, rather than play the perfect shot.
You can see this same principle being used in some of the most successful businesses. A great example is Amazon. Jeff Bezos has built the company on great processes with a people-first culture, which has resulted in an almost perfect customer experience. Amazon focusses on the mechanics of delivering a first class product rather than simply just trying to be the best. This ethos has resulted in the rise of a multi-national $280B company.
This principle is also at the core of the 4 Disciplines of Execution strategy process. In this framework, you concentrate on the tasks and techniques that will help you achieve your overall goal. The idea is that you only work on tasks that you can control. When you perfect and achieve these tasks, they will naturally produce success for your overall goal. In golf, your overall goal may be to hit a hole in one. But the tasks you need to focus on are those that you can control - posture, backswing, downswing and follow through. When you get these right, you have the best possible chance of achieving your goal.
Rule Number 3 - Expect To Win But Don't Worry About Losing
In 1966 Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jackson carried out an experiment looking at how the expectation to win can influence the ability and outcome of individuals. A group of children were put into two random groups. In one group they were told they were the gifted children based on a test they had completed.
The other group were told they were in the lower ability group based on the same test. The important point in the experiment set up was that these two groups were randomly selected and had nothing to do with their intelligence or skill (the scores from the test they sat were ignored). The children then attended classes in their respective groups. After a number of weeks of tuition, the researchers found that the children in the "gifted group" showed statistically higher levels of intelligence than those in the lower ability group.
It is impossible to say exactly what caused this, but it is highly likely that being in the gifted group gave the children the mindset that they were more intelligent, and unconsciously caused them to perform better.
This experiment shows how important it is to believe that you can be successful. It indicates that intelligence and achievements are not purely down to how clever you are, or how hard you work - but how you perceive yourself. We are constantly told to believe in ourselves, and there is scientific evidence to show this to be a key factor in success.
This positive mindset is not limited to just the individual, but can be applied at the team and business level. In everything you do, you should expect to succeed. However, in order for this mindset to truly work, you need to also be given "permission" to fail. We saw in rule 1 that if you concentrate on not failing, rather than on succeeding, you brain will be concentrating on doing just enough to succeed. This means you will be unable to provide your best possible output. Therefore by being given permission to fail, we are set free to try our best and reach levels unattainable than if we had the mindset of "just doing enough".
These three rules for winning cannot guarantee you success every time. But they have been proven to work at the elite levels of competition.
If these strategies are employed in any competitive or high pressure environment, they will certainly help you to focus better, perform to your best ability and give you a much better chance of not only succeeding, but triumphing at the very highest level.