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How to Perform Under Pressure

2011 September 7
by Greg Satell

Okay, it’s your big day.  Everything is on the line.  All of your blood and sweat has led up to this point and now it really matters.  What happens next is up to you.

And, if you’re like most people, you will choke.  Relatively few can perform under pressure.  Even highly skilled people, when under stress, will see their performance suffer.

Why is that and what can we do about it? Paul Sullivan, in his book Clutch, offers some guidance. As a former competitive athlete as well as from a career in business, I found it extremely insightful and that it rang true.  Therefore, I won’t even try to masquerade the ideas as my own, but will simply pass them on.

What Makes You Choke

We’re often our own worst enemy.  Top performers like golfer Tiger Woods, JP Morgan’s Jamie Diamond or super lawyer David Boies out-perform not just because of greater aptitude, but because they are at their best when it counts the most.

Most of us, on the other hand, tend to perform worse when it really matters.  Sullivan gives three reasons why.

Inability to Accept Responsibility:  We humans are naturally superstitious.  We look for omens that bode well or evil.  Our brains are wired to seek out patterns.  However, until you accept responsibility for success and failure, you’ll always be giving yourself an excuse to falter.

Overthinking: One of the toughest things about high-pressure situations is that there is a lot more to think about than just our own performance.  We envision the accolades if we prevail and condemnation if we falter.  Neither of these things, however, have anything to do with how we execute.

Overconfidence:  When things are going well, you think you can’t lose.  Obviously, you can.  Whenever it seems that there is no trouble on the horizon, chances are that you’re missing something.

5 Keys to Performing Under Pressure

While Sullivan offers some tips on what to avoid, he spends most of the book explaining how to do it right.  He describes five key traits of people who are “clutch.”

Focus:  As Shakespeare once wrote, “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

In any endeavor, there are plenty of things that signify nothing and even more idiots that will tell us that they mean something.  With so much around to distract us, it’s easy to lose focus.  In high pressure situations, keeping your mind on what’s truly important is even harder.

And what’s important?  What you need to do next.  It’s crucial to focus on the task at hand.

Discipline:  We all have some things that we like to do and  that we’re good at.  We can usually impress people with our talents, so there is a self reinforcing effect.  Others encourage us to do what we do best, therefore we do more of it and get better at it, which earns us even more admiration.

Much less is said about the stuff we hate doing.  That could be getting to the gym when we feel tired, making it to meetings on time, sending thank you notes or learning a new skill. These things are hard to do consistently, when we’re tired or depressed, day after day, decade after decade.  It’s a dreary business and others rarely notice our efforts.

Yet it’s the small, hard earned victories that make the difference.  The things we struggle with when no one will notice and for which we are unlikely to get credit.  That’s what separates mere talent and true excellence.

Adaptability:  Mike Tyson famously said, “Everybody’s got a plan until they get hit.” While it’s always a good idea to have a strategy, you have to accept the fact that events almost never play out as you expect them to.

Great calamities, as well as great opportunities, usually come as a surprise.  That’s what makes them such important events.  If we expected them, they wouldn’t amount to much.

Being Present:  There’s a natural human tendency to think about consequences, we are a risk averse species.  However, in a pressure situation, it works against us.  We think about what will happen if we prevail.  “Oh, the glory!”  We also think what will happen if we go down in flames “My God, the embarrassment!”

When it’s time to perform, thinking about outcomes will only get in the way.  What you really need to do is focus on the task at hand.

Fear and Desire:  He also points out that performance, at its core, is an emotional business.  Dread of failure and desire for success play into it, which is why so many that have come from tough backgrounds or who have experienced true loss become excellent performers.

Finally, in addition to the excellent insights that Sullivan presents in his book, I would like to add one tip of my own:

Put yourself out there.  Don’t hide.  It’s only through giving yourself the opportunity to fail that you can ever really succeed.  Performance under pressure, like anything else, is a skill and one that can be learned.

– Greg

19 Responses leave one →
  1. Uncle Jimi permalink
    September 7, 2011

    Great stuff – best advice, your comment.

  2. September 7, 2011

    Great post Greg. The thing I find is many (including me) choke on a few aspects or specific instances, but tend to perform very well under pressure at other things. E.g. Pressure to deliver sales – no big deal. Pressure to win the game from a 40-15 tennis match, I’d choke 7 times out of 10.

  3. September 7, 2011

    Thx Jimi!

  4. September 7, 2011

    Good point:-)

  5. September 7, 2011

    Greg, Thanks for the post. I appreciate the close read. You mentioned Clutch in post a few months ago, and I’m glad the ideas have stuck with you to mention it again! Let me know the next time you’re in New York. Best, Paul

  6. September 8, 2011

    Clearly explains why people choke under pressure(i have multiple first hand experiences). “Put yourself out there. Don’t hide” is the single most important thing everyone needs to do.Good post Greg.

  7. September 8, 2011

    Thanks for the great book Paul!

    – Greg

  8. September 8, 2011

    Thanks Abishek!

  9. Darrel permalink
    September 9, 2011

    Only matter of disagreement I could suggest is that Tiger Woods has fallen off a cliff since his personal life became a huge story back in late 2009. He’s not even a shadow of the golfer he used to be, however you’re correct in that there was a time when he defined clutch.

    Guess he never had a plan for when he finally got caught, huh? Never really thought of it like that until now, but the fact remains that Tiger continues to struggle, and he has shown no signs of establishing a new identity really (lack of sponsors perhaps?). Could it be that the true element holding him back is his failure to reinvent himself (or that the media won’t allow it?).

    Sorry to digress but Tiger seems like an interesting case study to measure these ideas against given the question of whether he will ever regain what made once him clutch.

  10. September 9, 2011

    Point taken. Well argued.

    Have a nice weekend.

    – Greg

  11. Darrel permalink
    September 9, 2011

    “What once made him clutch” was what I meant to say. Ah, the perils of multitasking!

    And with the NFL back in full gear, how can I have anything but a perfect weekend?!


  12. September 10, 2011

    Go Eagles!

  13. September 15, 2011

    For me “Overthinking” is the issue. I always lost the focus because I’d rather over think things. Your post seems to hit me and gave me ideas how to work under pressure. Thank you!

  14. September 15, 2011

    Glad to hear it! Good luck Samantha!

    – Greg

  15. September 22, 2011

    Great post Greg.

  16. March 20, 2012

    Great article! Especially, the following para:

    Being Present:  There’s a natural human tendency to think about consequences, we are a risk averse species.  However, in a pressure situation, it works against us.  We think about what will happen if we prevail.  “Oh, the glory!”  We also think what will happen if we go down in flames “My God, the embarrassment!”
    When it’s time to perform, thinking about outcomes will only get in the way.  What you really need to do is focus on the task at hand.

    Pure and simple!

  17. March 20, 2012

    Very true.

    Thanks Kashif!


  18. chris permalink
    July 27, 2013

    What about people close to you who want to see you fail? I mean some of us have toxic people in our lives that want to see us fail and live in misery. How to get away from these evil, toxic people. I got my sister, father and other relatives that want to see me fail. I removed my cousins, aunts, uncles from my life by breaking all relations with them but it is hard to break relations with sister and father. Fortunately I have my mother and brother that want me to succeed but my father and sister are toxic and evil people in my life. My sister is so toxic she has dumbed down her own son with sole purpose of controlling him.

  19. July 27, 2013

    Sounds tough.

    – Greg

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