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3 Proven Tips to Help You Perform Under Pressure

Three hacks to try with everything from a work presentation to a free throw.

Key points

  • Traditional coping techniques encourage us to change our physiology in a high pressure moment. Instead, try changing your mindset.
  • Even though the mechanisms of action of pre-performance rituals are unknown, they can have a positive effect on performance.
  • Physical movements of affirmation or refutation can amplify or neutralize self-talk.
as-artmedia/Shutterstock
Source: as-artmedia/Shutterstock

Pressure. It pushes down on me, presses down on you, and makes us second-guess everything from how to shoot a free throw, what to say next in an interview, or pronounce “niche” (or is it “nitch?”)

Even if we’ve done a task a million times, like walk up the stairs, order from a menu, or tie a sheepshank knot, under pressure or observation, we get psyched out and lose the most basic of skills. Indeed, a friend told me that once, during a lunch interview, she overthought how to swallow and had to sit for a few moments with a mouth full of iced tea before she could collect herself and figure it out.

How to prevent your brain from shutting down under pressure? Whether you’re trying to nail a work presentation, sink a putt, or spell “bougainvillea” for the win at the National Spelling Bee, let’s get it done with these three tips:

Tip 1: Get excited.

The researchers behind a hilarious but solid study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology made participants sing the opening lines of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’”

But right before the small-town girl took that midnight train, each participant was assigned to say a specific phrase out loud, and—importantly—do their best to believe it. The phrases? “I am anxious,” “I am excited,” “I am calm,” “I am angry,” “I am sad,” or no statement at all.

Next, voice recognition software scored each karaoke performance on volume, pitch, and note duration.

What group performed worst? You guessed it: the group that said, “I am anxious.” That makes sense.

But who performed the best? You might think it was the group that stated, “I am calm.” That’s often what we try to tell ourselves before a big moment, whether through deep breathing or other relaxation attempts. But instead, the group that did the best belting out where that city boy was born and raised stated: “I am excited.”

Why does this make a difference? Before a big moment, we get physiologically activated. All bodily systems toggle to “go.” Even if we tell ourselves to calm down, it’s difficult to slow a racing heart and jangling nerves.

Rather than trying to change our physiology, we can change our mindset by saying “I am excited.” This shifts the task from a threat, which results in anxiety, to an opportunity, and one we’re excited about, at that. Seeing the task as something we get to do, rather than something we have to do, subsequently improves our performance. After all, everybody wants a thrill.

Tip 2: Get a grip (using a ritual).

Back in the days of The Colbert Report, host Stephen Colbert had a distinct backstage ritual before going onstage to tape the show. He’d ring a bell in the studio bathroom, listen to his producer say “squeeze out some sunshine,” touch the hands of each person who worked backstage saving the prompter operator for last, chew on a type of discontinued Bic pen, and finally, slap himself in the face twice.

Much less complicated, but no less scripted rituals occur in all kinds of sports. Take golf: Tiger Woods had a pre-putting routine that lasted precisely 18 seconds: check alignment, adjust feet, two looks at the ball, and then putt.

Or basketball: Karl Malone would dribble the ball and mutter under his breath. To this day, no one knows what he said to himself. But whatever it was, it worked: his record for most free throws ever still stands.

Colloquially, people sometimes refer to pre-performance routines as “OCD,” but the two types of rituals are quite different. A true OCD ritual—the compulsion—is performed in response to an anxiety-provoking thought—the obsession. The purpose of the ritual is to neutralize anxiety.

By contrast, the purpose of the pre-performance routine is to regulate physiological arousal, focus concentration, and put the body on autopilot so it can execute a move that would be hampered by overthinking.

Despite that everyone from Karl Malone to your local high school point guard has a routine, the scientific jury is still out on exactly how it works. Even a meta-analysis of pre-performance routines from sports as diverse as bowling, water polo, gymnastics, and rugby showed that scientists don’t quite know how all this bouncing and muttering and knee-bending and kiss-blowing makes the magic happen.

But until then, go ahead and try it. At worst, you buy yourself a quiet moment. At best, you’ll reap the benefits of improved concentration and a smooth entry into your move.

Tip 3: Get nodding.

From a study in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology comes a subtle yet powerful move, literally.

The researchers asked 150 CrossFit members to participate in a study ostensibly about the use of headphones while working out.

The researchers divided the participants into two groups. One group was asked to write out and audio-record three positive statements about their current physical fitness, like “I’m in really good physical condition,” or “I have trained very hard every day.” The other group recorded three negative statements, such as, “I get injured way too often,” or “I feel more tired than usual.”

Next, each participant listened to their own recorded statements through a set of headphones and was told the headphones were being tested for factors like comfort and fit.

Ostensibly to test this, they were asked to move their heads up and down—mimicking nodding in agreement without actually being told to nod—or to shake their heads side to side, which mimicked shaking their heads in disagreement.

Then each participant was asked to do a vertical jump, 30 squats, and four deadlifts. What happened? The participants who nodded yes along to their positive statements turbocharged their athletic performance, jumping, squatting, and deadlifting their way to the top of the rankings. Those who nodded along to their negative statements deflated their performance, performing the worst. And those who disagreed with the positive or negative? Their statements were essentially neutralized.

Secretly, the researchers had wanted to know if the physical movements of affirmation or refutation can amplify whatever we’re telling ourselves. The conclusion? Yes, indeed.

When you tell yourself “I got this,” or even better, “I’m excited,” nod along. Your body is paying attention.

To wrap it up, go with the flow of your physiology and tell yourself you’re excited, which creates opportunity. Ground yourself with a ritual, which creates focus. And nod along as you talk yourself through, which creates affirmation. The result? In a world where some will win, some will lose, and some were born to sing the blues, you’ll be sure to pull off a great performance.

Facebook image: as-artmedia/Shutterstock

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