How to Perform Under Pressure - Notes

How to Perform Under Pressure – the science of doing your best when it matters most By Hendrie weisinger and J P Pawliw-Fry

Key attributes that allow performance under pressure; Confidence, optimism, tenacity and enthusiasm.

Truths about pressure:

  • Pressure is disruptive to performance, relationships, careers being a parent etc.
  • People don’t rise to the occasion we are inhibited by pressure
  • We can better at dealing with it using well proven techniques

Prof Gardner (Harvard) pressure applied to teams leads to typical responses. Become caught up with risk of failure and revert to safe standard approaches, fail to risk or innovate. Defer to high status team members and constructive challenge diminishes. She labels this the Performance pressure paradox.

Thriving under pressure is a myth in sports for which no statistical evidence exists. From data all NBA players perform statistically worse when under pressure.

Many of us confuse getting stuff done – for which we are often pressure promoted by a time deadline and doing good work.

Performance under pressure is about trying to minimize the negative impact that pressure has on all of us.

Those who perform best under pressure allow themselves to be less affected by it.

Good pressure performers are better able to control their emotional arousal and (for example) under pressure don’t become defensive when criticized they are able to stay open to tough feedback and new information

Stress and pressure can be differentiated. Pressure moments have consequences in which the results matter. In an evolutionary sense moments of life and death.

The term stress came into popular usage in 1936 defined by Hand Selye as the ‘nonspecific response of the body to any demand for change. Psychology has evolved this biological definition ; ‘we experience feelings of stress when the demands (stressors) of the environment in which we are working outweigh our ability or perceived ability to respond to them’.

Pressure = a situation in which you perceive that something at stake is dependent on the outcome of your performance.

Not being able to distinguish pressure and stress causes us to lose perspective and stop thinking clearly. When feeling pressure we should ask ourselves if the situation calls for the reaction we are having?

Common attributes of pressure situations:

  • The outcome is important to you
  • The outcome is uncertain
  • You feel you are responsible for and being judged on the outcome

Cortisol – the body’s stress hormone. Produced in the adrenal glands it activates fight, flight freeze response and is produced in response to pressure. Experiments show that the unpredictability of stress generates the greatest stress response.

Cortisol is important to how we react under pressure because of its effect on our ability to think and access memories. Along with CRH another hormone produced in the amygdala cortisol incites anticipatory anxiety and suppresses production of testosterone (which acts to invigorate behaviours). In consequence focus is on the negative aspects of a situation. In evolutionary terms its advantageous to see your environment as threatening.

Chocking is more about expectation than simply success or failure. Mostly about the effects of pressure on performance than the outcome

How pressure chocks: physical arousal, thoughts, behaviour. These 3 factors work as a system and each influences the others. To perform well under pressure you need to use these factors to your advantage, ie regulate arousal, think clearly and execute the appropriate action. If any of the factors is negatively impacted the whole system can be thrown and performance is negatively impacted

Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business school citing PhD student Lakshmi Balachandra a research fellow at Harvard Law Schools program on negotiation studied 185 venture capital backed pitched and found that variables such as calmness, passion and eye contact were stronger predictors of success than the actual content of the pitch.

Consistent research finding in the literature is that pressure is a strongly negative influence to good decision-making.

Pressure and thinking. It is not the event itself that causes our reactions but how we interpret the event, making us either confident or anxious.

Crisis or challenge. Huge perceptive difference between the negative threatening connotations of a crisis situation vs the positive associations of a challenge – something we can taken on and master.

Cognitive distortions – chance of a life time events, suggests the singularity of an event which with perspective is rarely the case but which intensifies pressure.

Magnification – exaggeration of what is at stake intensifies thoughts around fear anxiety failure and success. Worry impacts on control of our thoughts, hijacks working memory and leads to diminished performance.

Cognitive appraisal, our ability to think about a situation and interpret it defines our perception of pressure. If you change the way you think about it you can change the impact.

Daniel Kahnemans’s work shows humans are twice as averse to losses as they are attracted to comparable gains. Loss aversion causes us to play not to lose rather than to win.

Support of close friends & colleagues in some situations can increase pressure, ramping up the level of expectation & self-consciousness this disrupts any high skill task reliant on sub-conscious execution – as soon as we try to execute the skill in a conscious way it is done worst (assuming you have sufficient mastery that your unconsciously competent at the skill and not still learning and therefore consciously competent where working memory is still involved in the task.

Motivational incentives tend to intensify pressure and can lead to perverse and unwanted behaviours such as cheating. Need vs want

Mind set towards competition. Ranking mind set = win at all costs driven by need to prove oneself (insecurity). Excellence mind set focus on developing yourself to full personal capability. In this respect competition is an opportunity to get better rather than prove a point.

Abraham Maslow ‘ If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.’

Anxiety is an evolutionary reminder that we are vulnerable. Anxiety is heightened by uncertainty, drives an imperative to immediate action (panic) = absence of thought, because to freeze likely to prove fatal.

Solutions to pressure immunize you from the pressure of the moment as they:

  • Reduce anxiety, fear and embarrassment
  • Avoid distraction
  • Regulate arousal
  • Guide behaviour
  • Enable focus on what helps you

Biggest obstacle in a pressure situation is getting free from past responses, if these become habituated and subconscious you end up held hostage.


Think of pressure moments as a challenge an opportunity or fun – (not a threat). When seen as a threat pressure saps self-confidence sets up a fear of failure impedes judgment and spurs impulsive behaviour

Feeling challenged is a natural performance steroid you release more adrenaline than noradrenaline so smooth muscle in your blood vessels dilates as do lungs – body has more O2 energy and can think and act more clearly

Multiple opportunities. Think of the situation as just one of many opportunities. A rejection or a failure can be a doorway to other things a learning opportunity but rarely the complete end of something. Examples of Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey and J K Rowling

Downsize the importance. The more importance we ascribe to a situation the more pressure, dial it down and keep perspective

Focus on your mission. Focus on process rather than result

Anticipate and expect the unexpected. What happens if…in anticipation what can you do to prepare. 2011 Rugby World Cup, Dan Carter was injured, 2nd and 3rd choices also injured had to call up Stephen Donald the 4th choice to play in the final. He kicked the winning points in their 8-7 victory over France. ‘Chance favour the prepared mind’

Recognize that your worthy. Affirm your self worth by recalling past success and progress, reflect on your key strengths and values in action

Recall you at your best. Think back to previous success – ‘I’ve done it before I can do it again’.

Be positive. Approach and be in pressure situations in a positive frame of mind. Automatically limits anxiety. Visualize positive images and outcomes, assume a positive result, use encouraging and confidence building statements.

Stay in the moment. Hard for us to be fully in the moment tend to think of the past or future and neglect the present. Dial into senses can help (gestalt therapy approach) what does breathing feel like what do you notice right now, what can you see or hear?

Focus on what you can control. Distinguish between what you can and cannot control in any given situation and stay only with those things you can control whilst letting go of those things you cant control. Worry uses up a lot of your short term working memory which cant then be used for other more important things.

Use music – have a pressure tune. Music reduces anxiety, worry is less likely to intrude.

Have an anchor word. A word or image that can cue your performance. Particularly effective if incorporated into how a task is leant or practiced. How you learnt it will affect recall and execution under pressure

Practice pressure. Need to train and be familiar with the conditions under which you need to perform

Squeeze a ball. Squeeze ball in the non dominant hand. Research amongst athletes suggest this primes the opposite brain hemisphere whilst simultaneously dialling down the correspondent hemisphere. This primes the neural pathways responsible for unconscious movement skills and impedes those responsible for thoughts on success or failure

Write down your concerns. Worrying impedes working memory capacity (WMC) in the pre-frontal cortex, writing it down gets it out the way

Get over self –consciousness. Research seems to suggest that increasing self-consciousness whilst learning can be helpful (keeps you Iin the moment) Listening and watching yourself repeatedly over time desensitizes you and you become less self-conscious.

Well proven impact on helping to regulate, thoughts, emotions and behaviour. The more effectively you can regulate this trio the more effectively you are able to deal with pressure situations. Research using MRI scanning shows meditation ‘altered for the better’ the white matter connecting the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) to other structures in the brain. ACC therefore doing a better job of regulating thought, emotion and behaviour. Meditation should ideally consist of both relaxing, mental imagery and mindfulness.

Create and practice a pre-routine. Eg look at sports people habits, bounce the ball twice before the serve of goal kicking routines. Pre routine helps keep out distraction and therefore keeps you focused. Also acts as a cue that your going into the pressure zone. Good routine consists of imagery, relaxation, positive self-talk and some arousal or activation.

Slow down your response. Pressure tends to cause us to rush, usually to the detriment of the performance, we don’t think. Catch yourself in the moment to slow down

Regulate breathing. Anxiety speeds up breathing. Fastest way of regaining control over your physiological response to stress is to control your breathing

Go first. Choose when you want to perform. Going first in many instances (not learning where watching could benefit) decreases pressure. Alternately going second increases pressure. 1st does not have the distraction of thinking about what just happened, competition is less as comparison is reduced allows you to focus instead of thinking about tying to beat someone.

Share pressure. Communicate with others how your feeling.

All of the above are in the moment proximate solutions. Longer term and as a foundation book talks about developing a COTE of armour. This stands for a focus on Confidence, Optimism, Tenacity & Enthusiasm

Confidence is often understood as self-efficacy (a term first introduced by Standford University social-cognitive psychologist Albert Bandura) meaning feeling confidence in your ability to affect a situation. Not to be confused with self-esteem , which is a general sense of how we think about ourselves.

‘Employees are not productive because they are satisfied they are satisfied because they are productive. High satisfaction is the result of high performance not the cause’.

Confidence is an antidote to the negative effects of pressure, cant help you feeling pressure but can help you cope. High self confident people work harder and persist longer with greater optimism and enthusiasm than those who lack this quality.

To develop confidence assess your start point – we often have a bias in our self-perception to over rate capability, ie we all think we’re above average drivers. Over confidence more prevalent in men. Over confidence interferes with the ability to learn and take on feedback. Use views of others to more accurately assess yourself

High testosterone and low cortisol = best blood chemistry for coping with stress. Testosterone helps us act more rationally and to take well calculated risks. It predicts accurately for chess players and surgeons who perform best under pressure. We can control this to an extent as there are physical cues to the production or suppression of these hormones. Testosterone also increases levels of dopamine the bodies reward hormone

  • High power physical poses – open space filling. Leads to 20-25% in testosterone and similar decrease in cortisol, both in men and women. 2 mins of power posing before a high pressure event v.beneficial
  • Visualization to turn on the brain. Brain cannot distinguish between you imaging and visualizing an event and it occurring in reality. Split visualizations involve imagining both success and a problem occurring and how you would recover from it – build confidence you can solve problems.
  • Winner effect. Any small victory increases the likelihood we will win the next contest because confidence goes up.

Methodical preparation and a willingness to seek out and use feedback also characteristic of people with high self-confidence.


Optimism is about what happens either side of the moment in the future and past. Comprised of expectations and explanations

What you expect to happen activates quicker in the brain that your outside in view informed by sensory information. Expectation helps us as it helps spur us to action.

Expectations also shaped by people around us not independently created. The higher the external expectations the better we tend to perform.

Optimism a very good predictor for some kinds of performance such as sales. 2 elements at play, permanence and pervasiveness. In other words in your interpretation how long will a situation last. Optimists see setbacks and negative situations as impermanent. Pervasiveness refers to the degree to which you will allow a setback in one area of your life or performance to impact in other areas. Optimists see little pervasiveness.

Optimism also a bias though only to ourselves and our family so 3rd party point of view useful to maintain perspective and avoid delusion. Teams compensate for this individual tendency


Tenacity has been critical to long term survival. If you cant persist nothing moves forward.

NFL combine example of a totally useless test for predicting future performance in the NFL. Looks at lots of physical aptitudes but takes no account of what it really takes to be successful – tenacity.

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than the unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb/ Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent’. President Calivin Coolridge

Tenacity’s DNA = Goals, focus, hope and coping

Pathways + agency = hope, ie there is a way and you can affect it

Worthy goals come out of combining your interests with an optimal level of challenge


An affective state – what do you feel when your enthusiastic? Energized or excited. Its also a state of heightened arousal. Its positive I can do this or I love this. It’s a behaviour you act. Enthusiasm also communicates itself to others around you.

Sandy Pentland (see here – at MIT Human Dynamics Lab looked at importance of enthusiasm in group performance (eg Toy Story 2 team at Pixar under John Lasseter – the team went on to create 14 consecutive no1 films, 15 Academy awards)

‘non verbal cues can make unreasonable arguments strangely persuasive. People just believe them because of the way they say it’

What matters on a team is 1 person who infects everyone else with enthusiasm – this one person more than any other factor accounts for performance of the team’

Charismatic people projecting enthusiasm also elicit this quality in others. ‘With remarkable consistency, we’ve found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a teams success’. As significant as all other factors (individual intelligence personality, skill, content of discussion) combined.

4 daily actions: Affirm your self, be positive every day, commit to your best, celebrate.