Whether it’s a piano recital, crucial free throw, or sales presentation, we’ve all experienced moments where the butterflies in our stomach swarm, our heart pounds furiously, our thoughts begin to race, and we “choke” under the pressure of the situation.
Not even elite athletes and musicians are immune to nerves, yet some folks seem to thrive under the bright lights and perform their best when the stakes are highest.
How exactly do they do this?
Sport psychologists have been asking that question for decades, and research in this area has led to a number of insights that we can all use, whether we want to handle pressure more effectively in our professional lives, or simply get the better of our golf buddies.
Here are 3 things to try:
When the nerves kick in, our first instinct is to try to calm down. And we certainly don’t want the anxiety to get out of control, but the physiological activation we feel in those moments is actually neither positive or negative.
It’s the mental and emotional component of anxiety that often makes this experience helpful or hurtful. Indeed, sport psychologists have know for some time that successful performers tend to interpret pre-performance activation as excitement. That they’re pumped up and ready to tackle the challenge ahead of them.
In one study, subjects were asked to sing a popular song in front of an observer, where they would be competing for a cash prize, based on their singing accuracy score.
Before singing, they were asked “How are you feeling?”
One group was told to respond by saying “I am anxious.” Another group was instructed to say “I am excited.” And a third group wasn’t asked how they were feeling at all.
Those in the “excited” group scored the highest (80.52%), while those in the “anxious” group got the lowest scores (52.98%) – significantly worse than the group which wasn’t asked about their feelings at all (69.27%).
So the next time you start to feel nervous, try saying “I’m excited” to yourself instead of trying to calm down.
#2: Pre-performance routines
Have you ever noticed how basketball players all seem to go through some sort of ritual before shooting a free throw?
A pair of researchers decided to look at whether the consistency of these routines might affect the accuracy of their free throws, by reviewing footage of the 2006 NBA Western Conference semi-finals.
After watching each player’s free throws to determine their “dominant” pre-performance routine, each free throw was categorized as either “sequence followed” or “sequence not followed,” based on whether the player executed the routine in the same way, or if they added or omitted any actions (e.g. leaving out a bounce of the ball).
When players stuck with their dominant sequence, they made 83.77% of their shots. But when they deviated from their routine, their performance dropped to 71.43%.
So whether it’s something as simple as taking a few deep breaths, releasing tension, and visualizing how you want to perform, a pre-performance routine can be a valuable tool for improving your consistency under pressure.
#3: Performance practice
Being nervous isn’t especially fun (unless you’re excited!), so the tendency is to gravitate towards situations that make us more comfortable.
And while comfortable practice settings are great for working on our skills, they don’t help us simulate the demands of performance or competition. So when the pressure kicks in, we end up struggling to transfer our skills from practice to performance.
Research suggests that to perform better under pressure, we must also practice under pressure.
In one study, two national-level Dutch basketball teams did a little extra shooting practice for several weeks. One team took a handful of extra shots after warmups and at the end of practice, while the other took these extra shots while competing against each other for money, videotaped for later analysis, and under the watchful eye of their coach and teammates.
After five weeks of training, both teams were tested with and without pressure. The team that practiced like normal performed worse under pressure, going from a score of 73.1 points when calm to 67.9 points when anxious. Meanwhile, the team that practiced with pressure actually performed better when they were put under pressure, going from 71.3 points when calm to 78 points with anxiety.
It may be uncomfortable to practice giving a speech in front of coworkers in the break room, or practice putting in front of a crowd of nosy onlookers, but if you want to get better at performing under pressure, it’s incredibly valuable to practice under pressure too.
Where can I learn more?
Interested in learning more techniques for improving performance under pressure? If so, the 4-week course Perform at Your Best: Foundations of Performance Psychology might be just what you’re looking for.