The other night I took time off from the pressure of a work deadline and went to hear Hendrie Weisinger talk about his new co-authored book, Performing Under Pressure, at R.J. Julia’s. Here are some of the highlights of his talk.
No one does better under pressure. In fact, if you were to personify pressure in your life it would be a terrible villain. It makes you lose control of your physiology, bends your ethics, causes anxiety, insomnia, and a host of other problems.
Weisinger made a distinction between pressure and stress:
- Stress makes you feel overwhelmed.
- Pressure is about producing results.
I was happy to hear him specifically call out the retail industry for the relentless pressure (and stress!) it puts on employees: demanding greater results in less time, squeezing employees until they drop. [Insert Borders flashback here.]
Contrary to popular belief, at least from what research has shown in high stakes situations, people don’t “rise to the occasion” to win the game. That’s media hype, Weisinger says, and explained that athletes make the winning goal because it’s what they train for–for hours each day, year-in-and-year-out.
Professionals choke only when they let pressure into their minds, when they think too hard about what they’re doing. That’s why you hear athletes say big games are “just another game.” We may roll our eyes at that, but the athlete must focus on what he or she needs to do in the moment and not the end result. It makes sense: thinking about wearing a Super Bowl ring takes your mind off of making the next tackle.
Amateurs, on the other hand, by definition, don’t choke. Rather, they’re just not good enough to follow through. He gave the example of a friend who claims he choked during a game of golf. Weisinger told his friend that he didn’t choke, he’s just not good enough to make every shot. Apparently this was intended to comfort the friend.
For us non-professional athletes, we may get a lot done under pressure, but it won’t be our best work. And if you have an anxiety disorder it predisposes you to failure in a pressure situation. What we mortals can do is to minimize uncertainty with lots of practice and then develop and nurture these four attributes of success, which Weisinger calls a Coat (COTE) of Armor:
These attributes can give us an edge and diffuse pressure.
Some other things you can do:
- Develop confidence and support yourself by only hanging out with supportive people.
- Create a sense of success around a pressure situation like a job interview: the job is not the goal, a good interview is. If you have a series of good interviews, you’re bound to get a job.
- Write down your anxieties and concerns. This is helpful because it develops what he called worry cognition which helps get worries out of your system. Like when you’re talking about a situation with a friend and suddenly say, “I don’t want to talk about it anymore!” You’re done with the worries, at least for a time.
- Squeeze your left hand into a fist. This triggers the right side of your brain to reinforce performance memory (hence the promotional stress ball). Also tell your elderly parents/friends to do this when they get out of bed in the middle of the night and it may help them to not trip and fall.
- Look at multiple opportunities. This is what a quarterback does in the Super Bowl: he’s not thinking he has to throw the one winning touchdown, he’s thinking, “I have five potential receivers down field.” [
Insert Chicago Bears joke.]
- Shrink the importance of a test like the ACTs or SATs. Instead of thinking you’re gonna blow it, think that you can always take the test again.
- Develop a pre-routine. The energy of a pre-performance routine signals your body and mind to “get juiced.” I thought about Hemingway sharpening pencils when he sat down to write.
To wrap up his talk, Weisinger said you can’t do better than your best. People who aren’t professionals simply cannot accomplish a 100% success rate. And even professionals don’t win 100% of the time because some days the other team plays better and other times the pressure is too much causing a missed putt or field goal.
So practice, practice, practice. And if whatever you do requires performance in front of others, videotaping yourself can help you get used to people watching you perform.
Final words of advice:
Do your best and you’ll never feel bad. Realize that sometimes other people are just better than you on a certain day. And for those things that you can’t control, like what people think of you, why bother? Please yourself.
If you’ve read the book I’d love to hear what you think of it.
Hendrie Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry
Random House, Crown Business, February 24, 2015
I can’t hear the word pressure without hearing Freddie Mercury and David Bowie singing “Under Pressure” in the back of my mind.