Dr. Martin Turner, Co-Author, What Business Can Learn From Sport Psychology
Pressure is a perception. It manifests in situations where you perceive the importance of performing well to be high, and where you perceive the demands of the situation to be great. That investment pitch, that presentation, or that interview. Your business environment is full of demands.
In turn, an athlete must be able to deal with immense pressure if they are to succeed in their sport. How do they do this? They harness the potential of the mind to develop robust mental strategies to help them thrive when the going gets tough.
Challenge Vs. Threat
Successful athletes who are able to thrive under pressure can get their mind and body into the right state for performance. To explain, there are two ways you can react to pressure. A good way that allows you to thrive, and a bad way that causes you to crumble.
The bad response, known as a Threat State, has huge implications on the body and the mind. In a threat state, your heart races but your blood vessels constrict, reducing the blood flow to your brain when you need it most. This is an inefficient way to react to pressure because it means vital energy and oxygen cannot get to the brain quickly to service your decision making and thought processes. The result? Overthinking, worry, and poor emotional control! A good example of this is Golfer Rory McIlroy’s Masters meltdown in 2011, at the Masters, where he went from leading the field to seventh place in just one hole.
But the good response, known as a Challenge State, helps your mind and body to function effectively under pressure. In contrast to a Threat State, the body reacts efficiently, getting energy and oxygen to the brain via the blood to service your mental functions effectively. Instead of overthinking, worry, and poor emotional control, you experience clarity of thought, confidence, and composure. See Kobe Bryant’s 81-point game for the LA Lakers in 2006 for an example of responding well to pressure.
Preparing for pressure like an athlete
So what we can learn from athletes who can deal with pressure are the strategies they use to get the mind and body into a challenge state when faced with pressure. From working with, and researching, athletes’ performances under pressure, we know that there are three main strategies for preparing the mind and body for pressure.
1. Be confident
With high self-confidence you can slice through pressure. To increase feelings of confidence, athletes draw on past success, and imagine repeating that success in the next performance. If you did it before, you can do it again, right? So look back to those key investment pitches, crucial presentations, and game-changing meetings. We often take success for granted. We dwell on failure, and too often let success pass through us unnoticed – not wanting to “jinx” it. But dwelling on success is vital, especially in the lead up to pressure situations. Then, start to visualise your future performance. Visualization, also known as imagery or mental rehearsal, is a fascinating mental ability. There is good evidence that using visualization to specifically prepare for upcoming pressure performances helps enhance self-confidence and consequent performance. By realistically imagining yourself presenting to investors for example, and seeing yourself perform well – you can approach actual pitches with confidence and focus. Visualization is not about wishful thinking. It’s about mentally rehearsing your best performance before you do it.
2. Be in control
Business, just like sport, is littered with uncontrollable factors. Market changes, peoples’ opinions, others treatment of you – these are all uncontrollable. But what athletes are really good at, is focusing only on what CAN be controlled, rather than what cannot.
The greatest controllable you have in your arsenal, is your effort. Simply put, success is born from effort and persistence, and therefore, knowing where to direct your effort is crucial. Cristiano Ronaldo, 2013 FIFA World Player of the Year, for example, knew that when he performed he had left no stoned unturned in the pursuit of excellence. He says, “I am not a perfectionist, but I like to feel that things are done well. More important than that, I feel an endless need to learn, to improve, to evolve, not only to please the coach and the fans, but also to feel satisfied with myself. It is my conviction that there are no limits to learning, and that it can never stop, no matter what our age.” This philosophy in business can help you develop your leadership and performance skills so that when you face pressure, you know that you have done everything in your power to fulfil your potential.
3. Focus on success
When under pressure, successful athletes are highly skilled at filling their heads with only what they need to do to perform well. This focus on success helps them block out negative thoughts of failure, and also keeps them focus on the job at hand. A highly effective way to do this is to focus on only three performance-related aspects on the approach to a pressure situation. For a swimmer this might be “get off the blocks strongly”, “commit to every stroke”, and “turn smoothly”. Along with this, the athlete uses visualisation to see themselves doing these three things in the upcoming performance.
So on approach to an important business meeting, you may focus on “a strong confident handshake”, “assertive responses to key questions”, and “a composed reaction to unexpected events”. See yourself doing these things well in your mind as well using the focus as self-talk. That is, say the phrases in your head to trigger the visualisation. It’s all about priming the mind and body to perform how you want them to perform. As Arnold Palmer, the legendary golfer, said “What do I mean by concentration? I mean focusing totally on the business at hand and commanding your body to do exactly what you want it to do.”
These three strategies are great in isolation – but the real skill is to combine them. Take a leaf out of Michael Johnson’s (four time Olympic Gold Medal sprinter) book “Gold Rush”. Prior to a race he used to go through the following routine: “I started my automatic default mechanism of visualizing myself running the race… I would hear the gun go off in my head, and start going through my paces. Then I’d visualize the whole thing again… I focused on running the perfect race in my head.”
By doing this, Johnson increased his confidence, his focus on what he could control, and success!
So pressure isn’t “bad”. In fact pressure can be hugely beneficial for performance. Elite athletes often talk about thriving under pressure and using that pressure as great motivation to achieve. It’s all about developing your resources to that you are in the right state, a Challenge State, when you need to be at your best!
About the Author
Dr Martin Turner is a Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology in the School of Psychology, Sport and Exercise at Staffordshire University in the United Kingdom, and a Chartered practitioner psychologist. He is also the co-author along with Dr Jamie Barker of the book What Business Can Learn From Sport Psychology.