When I met Steve Peat back in 2009, he was one of the most successful mountain bikers of all time. He held 17 World Cups and three World Cup Overalls. But when it came to the World Championships, he had yet to get over the line first. He seemed to become a different person under the pressure of the event. His focus was on all the things that he perceived as wrong – “My back hurts”, “I am not feeling great”, “I haven’t been training very often.”
During the 2009 World Championships in Australia, I sent him a quick email to advise him on how to overcome the pressure by shifting his focus onto what helps us thrive under pressure, rather than simply surviving it.
The information I shared with Steve applies in business and life, just as it does in sport.
When we ‘feel’ pressure, our perception matters. The same physiological responses occur whether we are ‘fearful’ or ‘excited’ about something (heart rate goes up, adrenaline, etc.).
Here are five things that help you thrive and not just survive moments of working under pressure:
1. Understand yourself
Pressure affects everyone differently. Start understanding your unique experience. How do you respond to work pressure?
Which type are you?
The kind that easily gets overhyped and has lots of energy before an important presentation? Or the type that feels extracted and struggles to get going before a big meeting?
The secret to performing under pressure is first being able to get body and mind to your ‘sweet spot’. Understanding yourself helps you to discover actionable solutions, which we’ll talk about later on.
You experience pressure uniquely, depending on how you perceive your current scenario.
Often, the pressure we feel is due to the frame we place around situations. Focusing on ‘what could I lose’ or ‘what could go wrong’ can be crippling.
Thinking about your situation as an opportunity, rather than as a threat, is the first thing to do.
Then make a simple plan of things to do right now to take these opportunities.
3. The 3-step formula
Do you catch yourself thinking of a thousand things when under tension? Maybe before a big event or report deadline?
To lower your stress levels, follow this 3-step formula: DNS.
Gain perspective. Is it a life or death situation? More than often not, no. Put your situation into perspective. It’s not going to be the only board meeting you will have to present to. There will be other opportunities. Gaining that sense of perspective de-escalates your feelings, bringing back a sense of control.
A big conference makes you nervous? Completely natural. Everyone in that room would feel the same. It isn’t a sign that you’re not prepared but rather that you care about what you are doing. You’ll therefore give it your best, which is all you can do. Normalize your situation.
What are the simple things you can do next that are under your control? These could be as simple as ‘hydrate’ or ‘do the role that has been given to me’. Step back from a mindset of ‘this is the biggest thing ever’ loss-scenario to a place where you have single and simple controllable steps to follow. Simplify your solutions.
Your job: Make a list of what’s in your control. Then practice.
Preparing your slides, rehearsing your presentation, asking people to join in, listen and give feedback. Just like athletes practice set plays. If you practice the right things often, learn from your experience to adapt new strategies, you will win. In sports just like in business.
When things go well, athletes usually say: “It just felt like I was doing it automatically”.
Why? Because they worked from a part of their brain which processed information much more quickly, they repeated learned behaviours.
When under pressure, focus on the simple actions that are under your control and avoid that temptation to try something new.
Remember step number one:
Depending on whether you are overhyped or withdrawn, you can apply either of these techniques:
“I’m buzzing under pressure!”
Breathe deeply. Practice long, slow and deep exhalations of breath. Stay in the here and now. Focus on the process of what you are doing and allow thoughts related to the outcome to come and go. Remind yourself that this is not the only opportunity. You have prepared well, and you can only do your best. This will reduce anxiety.
“Can’t get going…”
- Remind yourself of the goal
- Identify what is there to gain
- Picture all the opportunities
These techniques stimulate your mood.
Working under pressure is not a sign of being strong or weak. Pressure is not your enemy unless you make it one. Feeling overwhelmed or struggling to cope with a current situation can lead to poor decision making because you often feel like you need to change something. Instead, keep things simple and planned. Focus on what you can control and give that 100% of your attention.