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5 Tips for How to Cope With Pressure

How to handle performance pressure in high-stakes situations.

Key points

  • Humans have several types of stress responses, which are triggered by the nature of one's thoughts.
  • Olympic archers and shooters who slow their breathing have more time to take their shot between heartbeats, helping them to be more precise.
  • Practicing a high-pressure performance in the setting where it will take place increases chances of success.
Kazuo ota/Unsplash
Source: Kazuo ota/Unsplash

It's not just Olympic athletes who need to know how to cope with pressure. We all need skills for coping with high-stakes performance situations. Here are practical tips for how to excel when you're feeling performance pressure.

1. Cultivate different types of stress responses.

Humans don't just have one stress response. We have several. Health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal labels these: threat, challenge, growth, and tend and befriend. Each of these is distinct physiologically and mentally/experientially. They feel different. They're associated with different behaviors. And, physiologically, they are different in your body.

  • The threat response is useful if you're running away from a bear, but being in this state too much has health costs.
  • The challenge response is when you're excited by a challenge. It's high-stakes but you believe you can do it.
  • The growth stress response not only prepares you to step up but also to learn.
  • Tend and befriend is when you respond to stress by connecting and nurturing others.

As a guess, when we saw Simone Biles so enthusiastically supporting her teammates after her withdrawal from the Olympic gymnastics events, I suspect this was her channeling her stress into the tend and befriend response, an emotionally healthy choice.

How you think about your stress (and how you behave) will influence which stress response is selected within your body. For example, if you pay attention to feelings of excitement, and if you deeply connect with others sharing your experience.

2. Over-learn

Back when I was training, our main exams were oral exams with a panel of judges. As practice, we were expected to call around town and ask practicing psychologists to give us mock oral exams. One of my mock examiners mentioned a handy principle. He said to over-learn everything by at least 25-30% so that if anxiety knocked off some of our cognitive capacity in the exam room, we'd still be able to perform. We'd still have a deep well to draw from even if anxiety caused us to struggle to recall some of what we knew.

This is somewhat similar to the idea that athletes perform best when they rely on muscle memory versus overthinking.

Yet another example is when you need to practice giving a talk. Don't practice it until you have it memorized. Practice well past this point, so that if anxiety knocks off some of your cognition, you'll still easily remember your script.

3. Learn how to slow your breathing.

When you slow your breathing, it slows your heart rate and creates a host of other changes within your body.

Relationships therapists sometimes suggest to couples that they don't discuss issues if either person's heart rate is over 90. When your heart is racing, it's difficult to process information and people jump to wrong conclusions more.

Experiment: Use a heart rate app on your phone. Practice slow breathing and watch your heart rate slow. This type of technique is known as biofeedback. Your heart rate will be a little higher on your breath in compared to your breath out.

Apparently for Olympic archers and shooters, a slower heart rate allows them more time to take their shot between heartbeats, and this helps them be more precise. For example, if your heart rate is 60 beats her minute, you have 1 second between beats, whereas if it's 120 bpm, you only have half a second. Keep this point in mind if you're ever in a situation that requires precise fine motor skills. Shoot your shot between heartbeats.

4. Build in recovery touchstones.

I sometimes do corporate speaking. When I'm nervous and excited, I get the urge to talk very fast. Therefore, when I practice my talks, I build in specific moments that are reminders to slow down.

A trick new college professors employ is saying, "That's a great question" to stall for a few seconds and give themselves a little breathing space to think of an answer.

For interviews and exams, you can develop a repertoire of these types of strategies for any moments you go blank. Practice using these mental recovery strategies so doing so is very familiar to you.

5. Practice in increasingly similar settings and conditions to the performance setting.

When I was doing mock exams all those years ago, I sometimes sought to practice with a psychologist I didn't know since that would most closely mimic the exam situation. If you're practicing a talk and you're going to give it under lights and with an audience, you need to practice in that setting.

Our memories work in ways that are context-dependent. We recall knowledge more easily if the situation we are asked to recall it in is similar to the context we learned it in. If you over-learn a skill or piece of knowledge in one setting but need to perform it in a completely different setting, that won't help you much. Don't practice a talk sitting down if you'll give it standing up.

However, it's scary to do that. You might not be able to get yourself to do it. In these situations, gradually work up. For example, start with practicing a talk standing up alone. Then practice with some photos of people staring at you. Then with some lights. Then with a real audience and the lights. You can work up gradually until you're hitting all the conditions that will be present when you need to perform.

It's not always possible to hit it out of the park when you're anxious in a high-pressure situation. I've certainly flubbed some opportunities because I didn't handle the performance pressure well. There are no tips in the world that will guarantee you'll be perfect, but the more of these tips you follow, the more likely it is you will perform well.