Performing Under Pressure – Words of Wisdom

Performing Under Pressure


Breathing is the most natural thing to any organism with lungs, but can be the hardest thing to do when you find yourself in a pressure position.  As I mentioned earlier, in pressure situations your breath becomes faster and your heart rate increases so that blood and oxygen can get be pumped into your brain.  Taking deep, controlled breathes, will help you perform with clarity in those high stress situations.

 Taking breathes that are long and slow gives the body the ability to absorb more of the inhaled oxygen.   More oxygen to the brain is a good thing.  There are several deep breathing techniques that you can practice that will be beneficial to your health and will also come in handy in pressure situations.  Here are just a few.

1. Counting Breaths -This exercise requires you to sit in a comfortable position with your spine straight, head forward, and eyes closed. Breathe in naturally and count “one” when you exhale. Breathe in again naturally and then count “two” as you exhale again and continue on until you reach a five count. Do this for about 10 minutes and if done correctly, you should come out of it with a clearer head due to a change in brain activity.

2. Chest and Abdominal Breathing -This exercise will help you become more aware of your breathing. Start by lying on your back and placing one hand on your abdominal and one hand on your chest. Take a deep breath through your nostrils with the focus on keeping your chest still and filling your belly with air. This will help you learn to breathe through your diaphragm.

3. Short Breaths -This is a quick breathing technique that begins with you inhaling three short breaths through the nostrils and then exhaling smoothly through the mouth. Ten to twelve breaths in 2-3 minutes should be enough gain the full benefits of this exercise.

Focus and Concentration

Being able to stay focused is a highly effective skill to have in any situation but comes in especially handy in pressure situations.   Once you are able to get and stay out of your own head, staying focused to the task at hand will become much easier.  I one of my next posts will be Stay Focused. I will go into detail the most effective ways to stay focused in different scenarios.  For now, here are some ways to stay focused under while under pressure.

1. Block out any other distractions-One of the fist things you may have learned in 2nd grade was how to clear your desk when you had to do class work.  I always liked to keep everything in arms reach of me so my desk top was covered with markers, crayons, and drawings of ninjas.  I was perfectly fine with my mess but I was always told to clean my desk before working.  Turns out the teachers knew what they were talking about. 

In most situations, the best way to focus is to block out all distractions.  In pressure situations, blocking out distractions is even more important and more difficult.  The best way to block out distractions is to remove them.  If there is anything that may divert your attention, it has to go. With some practice, you will become better at first identifying the distractions and then learning to cancel them out.  In the event you are not able to remove the distraction, follow the next two steps   

2. Goal!! Ultimately, focus is just zeroing in on a goal so that the target is clear.  During high pressure situations, the goal may become blurry due to the demand required.  Your goal should be clearly defined before the pressure situation. 

3. Go-to Statement– At certain times, your brain is not your friend.  It will sometimes entertain thoughts of failure and quitting when you are facing adversity.  Have a statement or affirmation that you can repeat that will help your mind refocus when your thoughts begin to stray in the wrong direction. 

One of my favorite examples of this is in the movie Men of Honor.  When Carl Brasher (Cuba Gooding Jr.) was training to be a Navy Diver, one of his tests was to put together a flange while under water.  While he was at the bottom of an ice cold lake for hours, he kept repeating to himself, “My name is Carl Brasher, I am a navy diver.”  The go-to statement should reaffirm and remind us of our goal all the while keeping us focused.

“If you stay ready you never have to get ready.” -Will Smith


Create Déjà

Creating déjà means preparing yourself for a future pressure situation so that you can perform better.   If you are an athlete, then your workouts and practices should be a simulation of the game. I had a psychology professor in college that offered her students the opportunity to come in the night before a exam and study at the desk where they were going to be taking the test.  She knew that studying in the same way, and atmosphere where the actual test would take place, would relieve some stress because you would be familiar with environment and circumstance.

In his extraordinary book Talent Is Overrated, Geoff Colvin presents the idea of deliberate practice.  Deliberate practice is the way of preparing with the intention of improving a specific skill.  In the book he states, “The great performers isolate remarkably specific aspects of what they do and focus on just those things until they’re improved; then it’s on to the next aspect”.   Colvin uses the example that the way Tiger Woods practices his swing is much different than your weekend golfer. While your average golfer will hit a ball, observe the results, then make any adjustment for the next swing,   Woods practices with the intention of perfecting one part of his swing or game.

This makes perfect sense to me.  I have been applying this technique for the past several years to some of my projects.  Not only do you have the subconscious confidence of being able to accomplish the task because you’ve been there before, but you are also able to calm down and breathe easier too.

Sooner or later you will be in a pressure situation.  If you are unable to handle it correctly, it may cost you a promotion, job, or an opportunity to experience new things and meet new people.  Practice these techniques and you will soon begin to see how well you can perform under pressure.