Withstanding Pressure Helps Improve Performance

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By Robert Moskowitz

At the highest levels of entertainment, sports, medicine, and most other forms of human effort and endeavor, the people who succeed have a special ability to handle pressure. In fact, for gifted athletes like “Mr. October” (Reggie Jackson), or Michael Phelps, who won eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, their performance actually improves with extra pressure.

Scientists have studied the relationship between pressure and performance in great detail, and have learned that – while each person has their own set of responses to pressure – the general pattern is fairly simple:

  • Under little or no pressure to perform, most people turn in mediocre performances;
  • Under extreme pressure to perform, most people are unable to do their best, and many suffer so much from the pressure that they do their worst, or nearly so;
  • There is a middle ground of pressure – different for each person – at which level they are inspired to perform at their maximum capabilities and deliver their best results.

This understanding of the relationship between pressure and performance yields at least two important implications:

  1. Too much or too little pressure actually harms performance. If you subject a group of people identical levels of pressure, you will get a range of performances from them. But none of them is likely to deliver peak performance, unless the pressure they feel happens to match their “sweet spot” level.
  2. Individuals can influence how well they perform under pressure by practicing techniques that change how they perceive pressure, and how they respond to higher levels of pressure.

There are really two secrets to learn here: First, you’ll do better when you feel yourself to be pressured enough to be motivated, but not so much that you are intimidated. Second, it’s important to acclimate yourself to the level of pressure you’re going to feel in critical situations – whether it’s the Olympic finals or a client demanding extraordinary results – so you can reliably count on being able to turn in your best performance under those conditions.

To begin, start paying close attention to the level of pressure you are feeling at key moments, including times when you are executing everyday responsibilities, emergency situations,  and peak periods like the Olympics finals or an important  meeting.

Some signs that you’re feeling performance-threatening levels of pressure may include:

– Uncontrollable shaking of your limbs, lips, and/or hands

– Dry mouth

– Sweating palms or other body parts (not simply from heat)

– Repeated visualizations of imminent failure or embarrassment

When you notice these or other signs of intense pressure, try to:

  1. Understand the reason (in some cases, the reason will be obvious: an important interview, your turn to perform in front of the judges, etc.).
  2. Reduce the negative impact of that pressure on your performance.

Some useful techniques may include:

  • Relaxation: a muscle technique in which you systematically tense and then relax each muscle group in your body, so that over a period of a few minutes you banish muscle tension completely.
  • Personal “centering”: a meditative technique in which you empty your mind of conscious thought and intuitively connect to your deep-level body and mind sensations.
  • Deep breathing: a simple exercise in which you repeatedly breathe slowly and fully, with single-minded attention, until you achieve a feeling of comfort, security, and capability.

By practicing these, and/or other techniques, you will begin to train yourself to withstand greater levels of pressure without capitulating to it. As you become more adept at these techniques, you will find yourself able to perform at your best levels even though you are under extreme levels of pressure.

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