Are you struggling to perform under pressure? Maybe you’re a professional athlete performing worse during competition than during practice. Or an entrepreneur whose pitches to investors are hampered by nerves. You’ve worked hard to achieve your dream only to get derailed when it really counts.
You’ve tried to “think positively” or to take a couple of deep breaths before these big moments. But I bet this probably didn’t help much. I know what it’s like. I, too, struggled under pressure as a competitive hockey goalie, a psychology student, and while performing forensic evaluations of difficult patients. The hardest part of it was the sense that I was the only one who felt like that. It’s an uncomfortable and lonely feeling. It makes you doubt yourself. The truth is, getting anxious and underperforming when the pressure is on is more common than you think.
Situations like these sparked my interest in learning more about psychology and performing under pressure. After reading hundreds of self-help books, earning three psychology degrees, and working with people from all walks of life who had almost every type of problem you can imagine, I learned a thing or two.
I started applying what I learned to myself with great results. I’m big on science but skeptical by nature. So I’m rarely convinced by science alone. I need to see it, or rather experience it, to believe it. I’ve tried out everything I recommend to others. If it doesn’t work on me, it doesn’t get added to the toolbox I share with others. The final test for inclusion in the toolbox is that it also works with my high performing clients. The strategies and techniques I recommend in my books, in my pro sport and performance psychology programs, and in my consulting, all have passed these three hurdles. So I know they work.
The first thing to understand when it comes to performing under pressure is that IT’S NORMAL TO FEEL ANXIOUS in these situations. Some of the biggest misconceptions high performers often have when they consult with me are that top performers:
- Don’t feel anxious in high-performance situations
- Perform best with little to no anxiety
These are both false. The truth is you need a moderate level of anxiety, or what we call activation, to perform at your best. As I’m sure you know, too much anxiety/activation leads to underperformance. But not enough is just as detrimental. How much anxiety is ideal will depend on the performance situation. A golfer about to putt for a tournament win and an Olympic weightlifter going for a world record-breaking lift will have different definitions of what “moderate” anxiety/activation means in their respective situations. But make no mistake; anxiety/activation can be your friend in high-performance situations. The psychic and physical energy this state produces can lead to amazing performances.
So the next time you’re in a high-pressure situation, welcome your anxiety with open arms. Say to yourself, “glad you could join me, my friend … now let’s do this!”